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Former Prison Foes Now Anxious for Facility to Open : Economy: The tight state budget puts operations on hold, dashing employment hopes in an area hard-hit by the recession.


Many former opponents of a new state prison in the Antelope Valley now wish the hulking, unoccupied structure at 60th Street West and Avenue J in Lancaster would open as soon as possible.

The change in attitude is in response to a recession that has battered the Antelope Valley with cutbacks in the defense and construction industries and caused unemployment rolls to swell.

The $207-million prison was finished in May and was scheduled to open this fall, but the state's budget crisis has led legislators to decide to delay the opening for a year to save about $30 million in annual payroll costs, which included more than 800 jobs.

Jim Caudill badly wants one of those jobs--at least 300 of which will be available to local residents. The rest of the jobs will be filled by state Department of Corrections employees transferring from elsewhere.

"If I can't get a job there this fall, we're going to have to leave the state," said Caudill, 32, who will be laid off when the General Motors Van Nuys plant closes in August. "The economy in California is just too lousy to stay. That prison was our only hope."

Caudill, who lives in Lake Los Angeles with his wife and two small children, is just one of many Antelope Valley residents now disappointed that the proposed state budget has postponed opening the Lancaster prison until October, 1993.

Although only a handful have been hired or offered work so far, many people still have high hopes. Their interest was understandable. The state does not collect separate figures on unemployment in the Antelope Valley, but 5,350 people filed for unemployment benefits there in April and May.

"We're now stuck with a lot of the negatives of having a prison located in a residential corridor but none of the positive economic benefits," said Danielle Marvin Lewis, who formerly led a group opposed to the prison. "The only real positive part of the prison location would be that it would provide jobs. Now we don't even have that."

Lewis supported a lawsuit filed by Los Angeles County and the city of Lancaster to prevent prison construction at the current site. But since the bid to stop it was defeated last year, people have become resigned to the facility.

"We rented a house to one of the construction workers there," said Lewis, who works with a real estate company.

Other former opponents, including city officials and business leaders, agree.

"We've got this ugly thing in town and there is no economic benefit," said Lancaster City Manager Jim Gilley. "The facility is built . . . and it is not doing us any good at all for it not to be open. The jobs aspect was the silver lining."

Warden Otis Thurman said economic impact of the 2,200-bed prison will include a $30-million yearly payroll and about $20 million in other local purchases of goods and services.

Thurman, a former warden in Chino, shares the frustration of Antelope Valley residents with the delay. He said he does not know how much it will cost to maintain the unoccupied facility but is drawing up an estimate for his superiors.

"Starting this institution is very important to me. It'll be frustrating to me if we can't get open in time." Thurman said. "But I'm not in control of things in Sacramento."

In the past 15 months, the department either organized or sent representatives to six job fairs in the Antelope Valley. The largest was in October when 2,000 people showed up.

Thurman could not give exact numbers but he said more than a thousand people had filled out applications and several hundred arranged to take the state civil service examinations.

"We'll keep that list active," he said. "The frustrating part is coming into the community and realizing that we could have a real positive impact. But it's all on hold."

Doreen Ehrhardt, 46, an unemployed accountant who lives in Quartz Hill, said she feels like her life is on hold while waiting for a job. Ehrhardt has been out of work since April, 1991, and is anxious to take the civil service test for getting one of the prison jobs.

"I've been calling for months to see when they're going to post for the jobs," Ehrhardt said. "There just aren't any good jobs out there."

The prison jobs, which include guard positions paying more than $40,000 a year, are especially attractive for Antelope Valley residents, 40,000 of whom commute elsewhere to work, many all the way to Los Angeles.

"We have a high percentage of our population commuting over an hour to their jobs," said Lancaster spokeswoman Nancy Walker. "We know a lot of people would take a pay cut to avoid that commute."

The shorter commute would be great for Jim and Tami Caudill. But right now they are just thinking about survival. Jim has been working for GM since getting out of high school 14 years ago and now he's worried that he and his family may have to move to Tennessee or Texas to stay employed with the company.

"We're just kind of left hanging," said Tami Caudill, who calls the state Employment Development Department every week about information on prison jobs. "It's been frustrating for us."

Caudill thought he had a pretty good chance of getting hired there but now he is worried.

"I'd like to see that place open up. Not just for me. I've got a lot of friends losing their houses and thinking about leaving the valley--or even leaving the state," he said.

"I've talked to a lot of people who applied there. They all said, 'When the prison comes in we'll be OK,' " Caudill added. "But it's like chasing the pot of gold at the end of the rainbow. I think a lot of people had false hopes about it."

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