New Prison May Have to Wait for Inmates : Opening of Otay Mesa Facility Threatened by L.A. Prison Site Squabble

Times Staff Writer

The Richard J. Donovan Correctional Facility at Rock Mountain is rapidly taking shape on a sparsely populated mesa 12 miles from the Pacific Ocean, two miles from the Mexican border, and about two miles from the geological elevation that inspired its name.

But after years of planning, design and construction delays, the scheduled Dec. 1 opening of the new state prison in San Diego County is now threatened by a political stalemate more than 500 miles away--in Sacramento.

"Given the word to go ahead," state correction officials say they could be ready in 11 weeks to fling open the gates of the first all new men's prison to be built in California in more than two decades.

The first busloads of inmates will likely arrive on unpaved roads, and inmates will greet their first visitors and undergo their initial medical screenings in temporary trailers that will soon be moved to the 730-acre site.

The gray walls of the first five housing units and a central kitchen are virtually in place, said John Ratelle, acting superintendent of the soon-to-open Rock Mountain prison in Otay Mesa.

Standing in the way of the opening, however, is a four-year-old state law that says a prison must be "designated and approved" in Los Angeles County before new prisons can open elsewhere.

San Diego, Riverside and San Bernardino legislators insisted upon the so-called "linkage language" in prison authorization bills passed by the Legislature in 1982 and 1983.

Assemblyman Steve Peace (D-Chula Vista), who authored some of the key "linkage" provisions when he was still a freshman lawmaker, said no one could foresee at the time that it would become such a hotly debated topic or a key issue in this year's governor's race.

But backers of legislation to authorize a prison near heavily Latino East Los Angeles said efforts to remove or ease those restrictions were a sticking point this week as Senate Democrats and Gov. George Deukmejian reached an impasse over the Los Angeles prison site.

Sen. Wadie P. Deddeh (D-Chula Vista), who has bucked the Senate Democratic leadership and supports the governor on the issue, was among those most adamant that the provisions should not be weakened--even if it delays the opening of the new prison in his district.

"If we were to end the linkage," Deddeh said, the pressure would be removed and the powerful legislative delegations from Los Angeles County would block any plans to build a prison there. "I'll bet you dollars to doughnuts," said Deddeh.

"It is not fair for Los Angeles County, which contributes 38% of the prison population, not to have a prison site," Deddeh added.

"We wouldn't even be having this discussion about an L.A. prison if there had not been the linkage language," echoed Peace. "When you have almost half the Legislature coming from Los Angeles County . . . politically it would become impossible to place the site."

But while Peace sides with the Republican governor in the controversy over the Los Angeles prison site, he said Deukmejian and others are over-blowing the potential impact of the current stalemate on the opening of the new prison in San Diego.

In a press conference at the San Diego prison site last week, Deukmejian said the state's correctional facilities "are very dangerously overcrowded" and a "potential powder keg waiting to explode."

California's state prisons have a current population of nearly 57,000 although their combined design capacity is less than 33,000. Democratic gubernatorial candidate Tom Bradley, who says he supports a Los Angeles prison but not at the site the administration has selected, has said Deukmejian could invoke his emergency powers and open the San Diego prison and a new women's prison in Stockton.

But Peace said he is not convinced the state Department of Corrections will have the new prison ready to open in December anyway. "Considering (the Department of) Correction's history, there may not be any great rush."

If the stalemate continues, Peace added, the new Legislature can deal with necessary exemptions to open the San Diego prison when it convenes in early December. The delay in opening the new prison would be little more than a week, he said.

Among San Diego County lawmakers, only Assemblyman Pete Chacon (D-San Diego) has opposed the Los Angeles prison site. Other San Diego legislators--including Deddeh and Peace, who have large Latino populations in their districts--said the area being considered is heavily industrialized and blighted. Although it is near the Boyle Heights neighborhood, they said, it is substantially isolated from it.

"I would never vote to dump anything on . . . a Hispanic community," said Deddeh.

"It is an incredibly bogus issue," said Peace. "I didn't see any of those people (Los Angeles prison opponents) marching down to my district to protest on behalf of the 85% Latino population that live within a 15-square-mile radius of the San Diego prison site."

"The ethnic issue is being used gratuitously and falsely," said Assemblyman Larry Stirling (R-San Diego). "I resent it."

Stirling, a strong supporter of the Los Angeles prison, said he does not see the necessity of it being linked to the Rock Mountain prison.

The San Diego County prison--first discussed in the mid-1960s when the late Judge Richard J. Donovan, a former assemblyman and Superior Court judge, was in the Legislature--has for years been mired in confusion and controversy.

The Legislature gave its final approval for the $140-million prison in 1983. But last summer, when it was initially scheduled to open, there were no buildings and only a few stakes on the site.

For nearly three years, state officials had to pay contractors to do little more than wait while a land swap allowed the site to be moved and design changes were made to lop an estimated $50 million off its costs. When construction should have been nearly complete, corrections officials were still negotiating with the city of San Diego for a sewer hookup to service what will eventually be a 2,200-bed prison.

Legislative critics said the sewer connection should have been considered in the early stages of planning. State auditors said it was all an example of how prisons should not be planned.

Corrections officials acknowledge they've learned a lot while building the San Diego facility. Although they have constructed expansions and annexes at existing prisons that have added 6,100 prison beds since Deukmejian became governor, the last new state prison to open in California was the Sierra Conservation Center, which opened in Jamestown in 1965.

Corrections officials say roughly a fourth of the new Rock Mountain prison will be ready to open this year. Department spokesman Jack Cory said the entire facility should be finished and ready for occupancy by the summer of 1987.

Ratelle said the five housing units on the northwest corner of the site will have a capacity of 500. But he said the first occupants will be 100 to 250 carefully selected inmates, mainly transferred from medium-security units, who are particularly well behaved.

"When you open, you are trying to set the climate of the institution," said Ratelle. "If you set the tone correctly, when the housing opens, usually you can carry that out."

Meanwhile, Stirling, who thought up the name for the prison and persuaded Deddeh to carry legislation making it official, acknowledged that the "awful specter of doing time at Rock Mountain" may someday inspire songwriters and poets.

But he said he thought the name important, both to honor Donovan and so that residents of Otay Mesa, San Ysidro and the city of San Diego would never have to live with the stigma of being identified with a prison.

"We don't offend anybody by calling it Rock Mountain because nobody lives on Rock Mountain," added Stirling, who said he saw the mountain on a map one day and thought it a good name for a prison--even if it was a couple of miles away.

But time will tell if the name sticks.

"I've never been able to find Rock Mountain," said Robert Gore, an assistant director of the Department of Corrections. "We all just call it the Donovan Correctional Center."

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