Building of Downtown L.A. Prison Appears Assured

Times Staff Writer

Construction of a controversial new state prison about two miles southeast of the Los Angeles Civic Center appeared assured Tuesday, after the Deukmejian Administration agreed to major concessions sought by Democratic opponents.

The agreement came shortly before the Senate voted 36 to 0 to spend $31.4 million to purchase 30 acres of land within the city and begin building the medium-security institution in an industrial area near 12th Street and Santa Fe Avenue.

The bill authorizing the downtown prison for 1,700 inmates still must be approved by the Assembly and sent to Gov. George Deukmejian before the Legislature adjourns on Friday. If the bill is passed and signed, it would be at least a year before construction would start.

Under the compromise negotiated by assistants to Republican Deukmejian and Senate Democratic leaders, the state would conduct a full environmental review of the project, promise not to build another prison within 15 miles of the site, develop a greenbelt for community use around the prison and hire 60% of its employees from the surrounding community.

Sen. Art Torres (D-South Pasadena), who originally opposed the prison project because it was too close to the residential area of Boyle Heights, also had demanded that environmental studies be conducted at alternate sites in rural portions of the county. Deukmejian, signaling his intention to move ahead quickly with a Los Angeles prison, refused.


Torres said the compromise was the best he could hope for.

“It is clear that I do not have the votes on this floor to stop construction of a prison in my district,” Torres said. “In East L.A., we are very proud that we believe in and respect the law, and we are supportive of efforts for law enforcement.

“At the same time, I am hopeful that we can keep under consideration the fact that (government) has given us a prison and freeways that have ripped our community apart.”

The prison project was held up late last month when the bill to authorize construction fell one vote short of passage in the Senate amid controversy over the state’s intention to buy the property, partly owned by Crown Coach International, without first developing an environmental impact report.

Deukmejian had sought to bypass the environmental review process to speed up his long-range prison construction program, which proposes to nearly double the prison system’s capacity by 1989. However, it became increasingly clear that there was little legislative support for such an action, particularly in view of the Assembly Democrats’ recent refusal to waive environmental reviews for a separate emergency prison construction program.

The crash construction program would make room for 5,000 additional inmates by next July by building additions to three existing prisons and by converting day rooms and similar facilities at nearly all of the state’s prisons. Administration officials are still negotiating over the scope of environmental reviews on the projects.

Emergency Program

In an effort to speed construction of the proposed Los Angeles prison, the bill authorizing it is likely to be made part of the governor’s emergency prison program, which is awaiting approval on the Assembly floor, said an aide to Sen. Robert Presley (D-Riverside), who is carrying the bill for the Administration. The action would permit a quick vote without public hearings.

Los Angeles has no state prison, despite the fact that 38% of the state’s male convicts come from the area. This has created resentment among some lawmakers, leading to a 1982 legislative mandate requiring that a prison be built somewhere in Los Angeles County.

“The locating of a prison in the Los Angeles area is long overdue, so that the area can help handle the prison influx and so that inmate visitors do not have to drive 50 to 100 to 500 miles to visit,” Presley said.

Corrections officials have not yet decided whether the prison will be used as a “reception center” for incoming prisoners, a medical facility, some combination of both or a conventional prison. The prison’s total cost has been estimated at more than $140 million.

State corrections officials chose the Crown Coach site after more than two years of reviewing more than 100 potential sites in Los Angeles County. It was not their first choice.

Too Small

Before deciding that the Crown Coach site was acceptable, corrections officials said they rejected it several times as being too small.

Crown Coach, a school bus manufacturing firm that has relocated to Chino, is partly owned by Llewellyn Werner, a longtime aide to former Democratic Gov. Edmund G. Brown Jr.

Los Angeles County Supervisor Michael Antonovich first notified Deukmejian Administration officials that the site was for sale.

Antonovich, who is chairman of the state Republican Party, lobbied for selection of the Crown Coach site, after state officials had tentatively decided to locate the Los Angeles County prison in his district near Lancaster. Crown Coach lies in the district of Supervisor Ed Edelman, who did not oppose the selection.

Times staff writer Ted Vollmer also contributed to this story.