Prison Staff Sent Home as Political Stalemate Clouds Opening

Times Staff Writer

With a lingering political stalemate threatening next month’s prison opening, state corrections officials have sent back home nearly half of the 98 people who had been moved to the San Diego area in recent weeks to staff the new Richard J. Donovan Correctional Facility on Otay Mesa.

A state Department of Corrections spokesman said 55 people who have legitimate tasks to perform remain in the San Diego area to prepare the prison for opening. But 43 others who would have nothing to do until the prison opens have been transferred--most of them back to the institutions they had just left. All had been moved to the area at state expense this month.

Assemblyman Steve Peace (D-Chula Vista) said the prison is not nearly ready to open, and he can’t understand why the Corrections Department would have started moving personnel to San Diego to staff it.

“It sounds even sillier if you go down there and look at the facility,” Peace said. " . . . If it wasn’t for politics, nobody in his right mind would consider occupying that facility (now). . . . They’ve got a temporary fence and guard tower around one of the little areas. It’s crazy.”


Although there are dirt roads, no dining room and temporary trailers for the medical unit, state corrections officials insist that the prison could open Nov. 24, except for a legislative restriction that links the designation and approval of a new prison in Los Angeles County with the opening of prisons elsewhere.

What appears to be an almost-certain delay in the opening of the prison--and a women’s prison in Stockton--is affecting 405 corrections officers, nurses and other support personnel who have either been granted or are awaiting transfers, said Robert Gore, assistant director of the department.

So far, he said, no people have been moved to the Stockton facility, which Gore said also would be ready to open late next month.

Gore said Corrections Department Director Daniel J. McCarthy, “who has been in prison work for 37 years and started out as a line officer,” wants to make certain that none of the corrections employees affected by the transfers “are . . . confronted with either financial or emotional hardship.”

Gore said state personnel officials have given the OK for corrections to pay one-way moving expenses for all the officers transferred to San Diego. For those transferred back to their old institutions, Gore said, the state would pay for storing their belongings in San Diego and the officers will get $65 a day for living expenses to maintaining residences away from their new home.

He said there was no way for him to estimate the state’s total bill for relocation expenses.

Don Novey, president of the California Correctional Peace Officers Assn., said union officials would definitely insist that the officers involved be fully reimbursed for any expenses they incur.

But Novey said the union might also file a lawsuit demanding that the San Diego prison open as soon as it is ready because prison overcrowding puts his members in danger. Currently, nearly 58,000 people in California are being housed in prisons that have a combined rated capacity of less than 33,000.


“Both sides . . . are posturing and we are in the middle,” Novey said. “We are going to go to some judge and get that sucker open.”

Peace said, however, that the San Diego prison is not nearly ready to open anyway. He said opening the prison without permanent fences and guard towers would endanger the surrounding community. As the assemblyman who represents the area, Peace said he would “not allow it.”

Peace was an author of key provisions in state law that require that a prison site be chosen in Los Angeles County before new prisons open elsewhere. And, he sided with Republican Gov. George Deukmejian when he and Senate Democratic Leader David A. Roberti feuded earlier this year over the proposed location of a new Los Angeles County prison.

But the assemblyman charged that corrections officials are moving personnel back and forth now to provide political ammunition to use against Democratic senators facing reelection Tuesday who sided with Roberti.


“That’s the only thing that makes sense,” said Peace, a frequent critic of state corrections officials. “Maybe they are just that incompetent. But I can’t believe that anybody is that incompetent.”