Using the stark concrete walls of two unfinished prisons as a backdrop, Gov. George Deukmejian turned up the heat on state Senate opponents of his embattled Los Angeles prison plan Wednesday, accusing them of jeopardizing public safety and suggesting that their actions could lead to the release of dangerous felons.
In a bitter attack on one of the plan’s chief opponents, Deukmejian also declared that Sen. President Pro Tem David A. Roberti (D-Los Angeles) is “exploiting this issue for purely partisan political reasons.”
“Our state prisons are very dangerously overcrowded,” Deukmejian told reporters during a press conference held outside several nearly completed cellblocks in desert land near the Mexican border.
“We have a potential powder keg waiting to explode,” he said. “These conditions threaten the safety of our courageous corrections officers, they threaten the safety of the inmates in these facilities and they also threaten the safety of the general public.
“Unless we get more prisons open and do so very quickly, it is very likely the courts will require that we release a number of these convicted felons from state prison to relieve the congestion and overcrowding.”
The governor’s hard-line statements, while touring the prison projects in San Diego and near Stockton, were carefully timed to focus political pressure on Senate Democrats who today are scheduled to reconsider their rejection of his plan for a state prison two miles southeast of the Los Angeles Civic Center.
Under a 1982 state law designed to force construction of a state prison in Los Angeles County, neither of these two lockups, scheduled to open in late November, can be occupied until a Los Angeles County prison is authorized. And with existing prisons already operating at more than 170% of capacity, the governor had a field day accusing his Senate opponents of shirking their duty.
But Deukmejian’s reelection opponent, Los Angeles Mayor Tom Bradley, blamed the governor Wednesday for the stalemate and insisted that Deukmejian could invoke emergency powers and open the two new prisons even if his Los Angeles prison bill is defeated.
“If he truly believes that his failed policies of prison building will result in brutal riots, he should not wait one more minute for a settlement of the East Los Angeles prison issue,” Bradley said at a Los Angeles press conference.
Deukmejian, when told of Bradley’s statement during a stop at the partly completed Northern California women’s prison near Stockton, said he has not received--nor asked for--a legal opinion concerning his powers to open the two new prisons. And he emphasized that he would seek such an opinion only as a “last resort.”
“It’s unfortunate,” Deukmejian said, “that when the search was going on for a site in Los Angeles, Mayor Bradley was totally silent, was of no assistance whatsoever.”
With crowds of television cameras and reporters in tow, Deukmejian tried to focus attention on the inability of Bradley and other Los Angeles officials to agree on a prison location while communities elsewhere in the state are forced to carry the load.
Noting that the Senate originally voted overwhelming to approve the Los Angeles prison and then reversed itself and defeated the plan, Deukmejian repeatedly charged: “This is unfair.”
The Senate’s reversal came amid pressure from community activists and Latino groups who contend that the project is being “dumped” in the downtown location by a Republican Administration that cares little about the heavily Latino and Democratic communities nearby.
Bradley added his own voice to that criticism, saying that Deukmejian “refused to follow the law” by seeking to exempt the prison from a full environmental review and “is playing politics with a potential time bomb.”
Deukmejian flatly rejected the assertion that the Eastside was being unfairly targeted, rhetorically asking reporters why, if that was the case, Roberti and other Democratic opponents in the Senate first voted to approve the proposal.
“There is absolutely no excuse for (Roberti) as the leader of the Senate to have switched his position on this issue,” Deukmejian said during his San Diego stop.
Later, he added that if the Administration is prevented from opening new lockups as the result of legislative inaction, incidents of “violence and bloodshed” within the prisons will be on the shoulders of “Sen. Roberti and the handful of Democratic senators who either are opposing this legislation or have thus far failed to vote on it.”
In reply, Roberti said, “It’s a hateful thing to do, to accuse anyone of causing violence and bloodshed before it has even occurred. . . . I think the governor has lost his cool.”
Community opponents of the Los Angeles prison proposal also turned up the pressure Wednesday with a protest by 150 students from Eastside Catholic schools who were bused to the Los Angeles prison site in hopes of countering the governor’s media-oriented prison tour. Last Thursday, Archbishop Roger Mahony of the Los Angeles Roman Catholic archdiocese added his name to the list of vocal prison opponents.
Times City-County Bureau Chief Bill Boyarsky in Los Angeles contributed to this article.