The Orange County Planning Commission voted unanimously Wednesday to give nearby residents another month to study a proposed $25-million expansion of the James A. Musick branch prison, a minimum security honor farm in the unincorporated area of El Toro.
At the meeting, residents of the Serrano Park neighborhood, directly east of the Musick facility, told commissioners that they are concerned that more inmates will mean more escapees. Since Jan. 1, 21 inmates have escaped from the detention center, a Sheriff’s Department spokesman said.
“One of the primary functions of government is to provide for public safety, and I think this is being disregarded in favor of time and convenience,” said Marcel J. Fernandez of the Serrano Park Homeowners Assn.
The expansion plan calls for three inmate dormitories, a Sheriff’s Department shooting range, and training facilities for county firefighters and sheriff’s deputies to be built on the 100-acre site by the year 2000. The inmate population, which was at 962 Wednesday, would increase to 1,535 inmates, said Frederick W. Olson, who wrote the environmental impact report for the project.
Asked for More Time
Supervisor Bruce Nestande, in a letter dated Sept. 4, asked the commission to wait at least 30 days before making a recommendation on the expansion “to ensure an adequate, thorough and informative response to this critical and emotional planning issue.”
Nestande, whose district includes the El Toro area, noted that the county environmental report was made public Sept. 2, which, he said, did not give residents much time to review it.
The public was invited to comment on the expansion plan for a 45-day period starting in June, Olson said. During that time, the county Environmental Management Agency received 96 letters, even more letters than when the John Wayne Airport expansion plan was made public, he said. Every letter but one opposed the prison expansion, Olson said.
“There are times when people make statements that are totally non-factual and utterly frustrating, but by the same token, it is understandable nobody would prefer to have inmates nearby,” Olson said.
Residents at the meeting voiced concern about the increased noise that could result from the prison expansion and gun range, noting that they already endure noise from inmates and from military flights from the Marine Corps Air Station at El Toro, which borders Musick on the north and west.
Report ‘Dead Wrong’
“The EIR (environmental impact report) is dead wrong about the noise level,” said Elizabeth Meadows, a Serrano Park resident. “The airplanes from the air base are bad enough, but this is ridiculous. The noise from the gentlemen at the Musick facility echoes inside the house.”
Musick was built 23 years ago to house 200 men and 60 women. On Wednesday it held 276 men and 150 women in its regular facilities, 412 inmates in temporary modular buildings and 124 in tents, said Lt. Richard J. Olson, a spokesman for the Sheriff’s Department. The tents can hold up to 320 prisoners, he said.
The vast majority of inmates who stay at the facility are serving drunk-driving sentences, Olson said.
The county has been under pressure to find enough space for prisoners since U.S. District Judge William P. Gray in March, 1985, ordered that measures be taken to relieve severe overcrowding at the men’s main jail in Santa Ana.
The county has paid more than $75,000 in court-ordered fines since Gray’s judgment. To help ease overcrowding, county supervisors have proposed building a 1,500-bed jail in Anaheim and are continuing to look for a site in a remote area of the county to house a 5,000-bed facility.
After the meeting, Fernandez of the Serrano Homeowners Assn. said to another association member, “You know, I think these guys (the Planning Commission) are in a little bit more sympathetic mood than I’ve seen in the past.”