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Data on New Death Row Criticized

Corrections officials failed to fully analyze the costs of building a new facility at San Quentin, the state auditor says.

March 17, 2004|Carl Ingram | Times Staff Writer

SACRAMENTO — In their drive to construct a new death row at aging San Quentin State Prison, California corrections officials failed to consider alternative sites or estimate the long-term cost of running such a facility, a state investigator charged Tuesday.

As a result of inadequate information, state Auditor Elaine M. Howle told the Legislature in a scathing report that she was unable to determine whether the decision to expand the overcrowded death row at San Quentin was the right thing to do.

Howle, on orders of the Joint Legislative Audit Committee, started her investigation into the proposed addition of 1,024 cells to death row after lawmakers set aside $220 million for the project.

But she said the Department of Corrections' own analysis of alternative sites, costs and other issues was incomplete. Consequently, she told lawmakers, "We can conclude neither that San Quentin is the best location for the new condemned-inmate complex nor that a better location exists."

If the Legislature wants a definitive answer, she recommended that it order the department to perform a more rigorous evaluation.

Assemblyman Joe Nation (D-San Rafael), who asked for the investigation, said the audit report confirmed his long-held belief that prison officials had not done a complete analysis of the long-term costs, including annual operating and maintenance expenses.

"It is surprising that a state agency would not look at the operating costs," Nation said. "It's like making a down payment on a house and ignoring the mortgage payments."

He said the audit left unanswered the question of whether "this is the best investment for the state in these difficult budget times."

However, he expressed doubt that lawmakers would reopen the issue because the "real battle" occurred last year over approval of construction funds for the project.

Environmental impact studies of the expansion are already underway. The department expects the project to be finished in 2007.

In a written response, newly appointed Director of Corrections Jeanne S. Woodford -- formerly warden at San Quentin -- agreed with most points in the report.

But Woodford said that it also "validates what [the department] has been saying for many years: that San Quentin facilities are not secure or safe for the housing of maximum security inmates such as the condemned."

She also argued that the investigation validates the lawmakers' decision to locate the "much-needed facility at San Quentin."

San Quentin, the state's oldest prison, is located on prime real estate with a view of San Francisco Bay.

It houses all 622 men on death row; 15 women facing execution are kept at a separate prison in Chowchilla.

At one point a few years ago, the Department of Corrections proposed moving death row to a new state prison at Folsom, which also is home to castle-like Folsom Prison.

Local residents protested and the plan was abandoned.

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