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Torres Tosses Surplus Ships Idea Into Debate on L.A. County Prisons

Times Staff Writer

With the Senate facing a crucial vote this week over embattled plans for a Los Angeles prison, Sen. Art Torres (D-Los Angeles) said Monday that he will propose housing prisoners on surplus ships as a substitute for a heavily fought prison on the city’s Eastside.

The proposal came as Senate President Pro Tem David A. Roberti (D-Los Angeles) vowed to break the nearly two-year prison issue deadlock before the Legislature recesses July 17.

Torres, the Senate’s chief critic of the Deukmejian Administration’s Eastside prison proposal, told a group of more than 100 Eastside community activists at a Capitol protest demonstration that surplus ships--like those offered for sale by a client of former Gov. Edmund G. (Pat) Brown--may be the only realistic hope of sidetracking a prison in his district.

“Prisons belong in the deserts and oceans of this state and not in neighborhoods and not (near) schools,” Torres said.

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Torres’ prison ship idea is among nine major amendments expected to be debated Thursday on the Senate floor as members attempt to protect their districts and find a solution to the prison dilemma, which has gone unresolved for 22 months.

It will be the first time since last August that the full Senate has faced the issue of where to place a prison in Los Angeles County. At that time, strong protests from community activists prompted the Senate to reject Gov. George Deukmejian’s Eastside prison plan.

Since then, Sen. Robert Presley (D-Riverside) has been attempting to negotiate a compromise that would allow a prison near heavily Latino and Democratic Boyle Heights, two miles southeast of the Los Angeles Civic Center, while requiring a second penitentiary in a rural, Republican area of the county.

A bill encompassing the two locations--with the rural site designated for the desert west of Lancaster--was approved last week by the Senate Judiciary Committee but is still opposed by critics of the Eastside prison and by the Deukmejian Administration.

Among other objections, the governor wants a larger prison on the Eastside and does not want the Legislature to determine the exact location of the rural prison.

Until the issue is decided, two newly built prisons--in San Diego and near Stockton--are prevented by law from opening. According to both sides, the political fallout from that dilemma is fueling a new urgency to resolve the dispute.

The vote also will be a test for Roberti, whose opposition to the governor’s Eastside prison plan sidetracked action in the Senate for the last year.

On Tuesday, Roberti said he remains opposed to the Eastside location but “unfortunately, we have to deal with the reality that we have two unopened prisons that we have to try to open up.”

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The Assembly already has approved the governor’s prison plan and Speaker Willie Brown (D-San Francisco) has said he will support any prison bill passed by the Senate.

Torres said he believes the Senate will embrace his floating prison plan as individual members see that their districts also could be threatened.

The plan, he said, calls for two ships, each housing 2,000 prisoners, that could be docked near the federal prison on Terminal Island. Torres said he got the idea from a Los Angeles County proposal to use ships to house the homeless and from Brown, whose law firm, Torres said, represents a client “who had some ships to sell.”

The Department of Corrections has already indicated that it would oppose the floating prison idea. In a January memo, a top corrections official said the concept was “not feasible” because of the difficulty of providing security and the cost of running a fleet of ships to deliver food and water daily.

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According to Torres, the cost of purchasing and renovating the ships would be $15,000 per prison bed, as opposed to the $111,000-per-bed cost of building the Eastside prison.

Presley said the Legislature’s Joint Prisons Committee will consider the floating prison concept in a hearing this fall but “it’s not appropriate to do it here and now.”


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