2 Idle Prisons Remain Silent Hostages in Political Fight Over L.A. County Facility

Associated Press

Two new prisons, both hostages of a bitter political feud, remain empty despite record overcrowding in California's 60,000-inmate correctional system.

Thirty miles southeast of San Diego, within sight of the Mexican border, sits the silent emptiness of the $22-million prison at Otay Mesa, built to hold 2,000 inmates.

"It's sitting here waiting, and we're waiting," Supt. J. M. Ratelle said.

And on windy, clay-rich pastures east of Stockton, the finishing touches are being put on the $30-million state prison for women, a stark complex of unpainted, two-story concrete structures surrounded by chain-link fencing, razor wire and lights. Ultimately, authorities hope, it will be home to 400 women prisoners.

'Kind of Ghostly'

"It's really kind of strange to come out here walking on the weekend. It's kind of ghostly," said Lew Kuykendall, associate superintendent. "You can't imagine how inmates can bring a place to life with a lot of noise."

But both prisons are still awaiting their first inmates while state politicians wrangle over placing a new prison in Los Angeles County. Although it provides a third of California's inmates, the county has no state lockup within its boundaries--a circumstance that has infuriated Northern California lawmakers who have grappled for decades with San Quentin, Folsom, Tracy and Soledad prisons, among others.

A 1982 law blocks any new prison from being occupied until the Los Angeles County prison site is approved by the Legislature and the governor. Since September, Republican Gov. George Deukmejian and the Democrat-controlled Senate have been deadlocked, unable to agree on a site for the Los Angeles-area prison.

Officially known as the Richard J. Donovan Correctional Facility, the Otay Mesa institution is built on 120 acres, part of a 770-acre state parcel of exposed slopes. The unused land fans out on all sides of the medium-security detention center, forming a natural barricade around the concrete blocks that were built to hold inmates but now house only empty cots. Authorities say the institution is ready to begin operating at half capacity.

Ready for Inmates

The state Department of Corrections says the Northern California Women's Facility at Stockton can begin accepting new inmates immediately and fill to its capacity within four weeks, although work remains to be done on the mess halls, prison industry facilities and administration building.

The construction site 80 miles east of San Francisco contains scattered debris, equipment and unfinished buildings, as workers scramble over roofs and through empty halls wielding their tools.

From a distance, the prison resembles a no-frills apartment complex. But as a visitor approaches, the ugly coils of razor wire and the double-fenced perimeter identify the site as a penal institution. Nearby, a Youth Authority institution holds offenders up to 25 years of age.

The core of the 30-acre Stockton prison is the "housing unit," a modernistic cell block in which the traditional bars have been supplanted by sliding electric doors and narrow windows. A medium-sized man can stand in the middle of the cell and touch opposite walls across the width with his outstretched hands.

Fixtures Bolted Down

As in Otay, each cell contains a built-in bunk, wash basin and commode--all bolted down--and a window of thick glass but no bars.

The prison has four housing units, each capable of holding 100 women in single-bed cells. The cells, each about 6 feet wide by 8 feet long, are located along the edge of the interior, and the unit resembles an auditorium, with large expanses of concrete flooring and an elevated control room sheathed in shatterproof glass, a vantage point from which guards can observe all 100 cells. The housing units have no air conditioning, but do contain heating.

Without inmates, the unit is an eerie domain, where voices reverberate unnaturally and the lights of the guards' master control board glow softly. When operational, 180 correctional officers and administrators will police the 400 women inmates.

Otay's design is somewhat different, but the isolation and silence within the prison walls is the same. It is cool and quiet, but one day the cell doors that stand now open will click shut at the push of a button and the recreational rooms will be filled with convicts watching big-screen televisions.

The detention center is divided into four 500-bed quads and a smaller 200-inmate minimum security building. As at the Stockton prison, each quad is a square, with an elevated observation booth in the center that is surrounded on three sides by cells and protected with heavy glass.

The cells have bright orange doors rather than bars and long, narrow windows looking out to freedom, virtual duplicates of the Stockton plans except that they contain two bunks.

No Wasted Space

Inside the cells, there is just enough room to get between the door and one of the bunks welded to the wall. Everything is welded onto the walls, from the shelves to the toilet, as a way to prevent the manufacture of weapons from loose metal parts.

Two of the quads are ready for occupancy. Construction workers are still laboring on some buildings and the central recreation area looks like a graveyard for bulldozers. Still, the important things are finished.

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