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Prisons: Making Room

More than 48,000 inmates are jammed into space at 12 California prisons designed for 29,000. There is worse to come. Judges are sentencing more criminals to longer terms, required in some cases by tough mandatory-sentencing laws and encouraged in all cases by public sentiment.

Gov. George Deukmejian wants to make room at existing prisons and abandoned facilities for close to 5,000 more beds, some on a temporary basis. He’s on the right track, but he will have to compromise to get his plan through the Legislature. He should agree to the modest changes that the Legislature wants, and the Legislature in turn should move quickly to approve the final version.

The governor’s plan starts with the undeniable fact that the state cannot wait for the six years that it takes to build the average new prison. But, to speed things up, he would waive environmental-impact requirements--a move that surely would provoke time-consuming lawsuits and that could well lead to slipshod planning. The Assembly Public Safety Committee rejected the waiver, but agreed to put the environmental-review process on a fast track.

There is no disagreement between the two about the urgent need for more space. The bill approved by the committee, chaired by Assemblyman Larry Stirling (R-San Diego), would add capacity by expanding prisons at Tehachapi, Sierra and Susanville and spreading 550 temporary beds among an abandoned California Conservation Corps facility in Tulare and at a fire camp in Los Angeles County. Another 2,900 beds would be put into gymnasiums, classrooms and day rooms at existing prisons. Moving prisoners with mental problems to Atascadero State Hospital would free 100 more beds, and all would be available by next July.

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There are risks in the plan. Eliminating recreation areas could raise tensions in already-tense prisons. Some prisoner-right advocates argue that the stopgap measures could hamper rehabilitation efforts. Nor does the plan address the long-term barriers to prison construction--politics and local opposition.

For example, a 1982 act requires the construction of a state prison in Los Angeles County, where 34% of the state’s male convicts come from, but no site has been nailed down.

That prison would be part of a $1.2-billion state prison expansion program to add 19,000 beds to the system by 1989. Construction bonds were approved by voters in 1982 and 1984. Last year 3,200 beds were completed, and construction has begun on 6,000 more, according to the governor’s office--a slow pace that the Administration blames on environmental and bureaucratic hurdles. But the pace of sentencing is expected to outstrip even that ambitious plan, and the governor will ask for a new $500-million bond issue for more prison construction in November, 1986.

Money alone will not solve overcrowding. Even faster planning and construction cannot help unless political roadblocks, largely rooted in local opposition to prisons, are eliminated. In the meantime, thousands of men are doubled up in solo cells or are sleeping in tents. The plan now before the Assembly could provide emergency relief, and it should be approved quickly. But the Administration and the Legislature must then work harder to roll away the political barriers for the long-term protection of public safety.

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