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NEWS ANALYSIS : Only Options to Canyon Jail Are the Old Ones

TIMES STAFF WRITER

The Orange County government cupboards have never been more bare.

In May, voters rejected a sales tax increase to pay for jails. Last week, a new study concluded that building a jail in Gypsum Canyon, near Anaheim Hills, would cost taxpayers more than $119 million every year and ruefully noted that the county has no way to pay for it.

Those facts, taken together and packaged in a report and briefings to the Board of Supervisors, last week rocked the three-vote coalition that has kept the Gypsum Canyon jail proposal alive year after year. Based largely on the latest financial analysis, two of three county supervisors who have long supported the canyon jail to relieve overcrowding now say they are losing hope.

The Board of Supervisors will formally receive the report Tuesday. And although most observers believe that the supervisors will keep their options open for Gypsum Canyon--and will not vote, for instance, to abandon the site--nearly everyone is convinced that the political support for the project is quickly and irreversibly eroding.

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That will leave the supervisors to contemplate unpleasant choices in the coming months as they reopen the county government’s most vexing debate.

“I’m very discouraged about the numbers,” said Supervisor Thomas F. Riley, a longtime Gypsum Canyon supporter. “But I think we need to be patient and study these new figures.”

Riley and some other supporters of the canyon jail said they hope that the discussion of the report Tuesday does not lead board members to make a dramatic change in course--at least not yet. Most supporters would prefer to wait until after Gov. Pete Wilson has decided whether to sign legislation now sitting on his desk that would make it easier for the board to condemn land for a jail.

Supervisor Harriett M. Wieder, a Gypsum Canyon supporter who last week indicated a willingness to discuss moving on to other options, was also being urged by jail supporters to refrain from abandoning Gypsum Canyon until after Wilson makes his decision. “I don’t want to preempt the governor,” she said, suggesting that she too will likely hold off for now.

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While the project may be butting up against its $1-billion-plus price tag, changing course has its consequences too. That would leave the supervisors in essentially the same place they were in 1987, when they picked Gypsum Canyon as the best place for a new county jail.

Despite progress on expanding the existing jails, the past four years have seen the supervisors spend more than $7.3 million planning for the canyon jail, and their options remain limited, expensive and controversial. They include:

* Expanding an existing program that provides alternatives to incarceration for minor offenders.

* Double-bunking the Theo Lacy Branch Jail in Orange.

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* Expanding the James A. Musick Branch Jail near Irvine.

* Expanding the Central Men’s Jail in Santa Ana or building a new facility near it.

* Building a new jail at the corner of Katella Avenue and Douglass Road in Anaheim.

* Going to the desert, picking a spot there and building a new regional jail.

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One option that the county does not have, officials and experts on all sides of the jail debate agree, is to do nothing. Almost all observers agree that the jail system is badly overcrowded, with more than 4,400 inmates typically jammed into cells built for 3,203.

Overcrowding has gotten so bad that 850 inmates are released early every week.

“People have a tendency to forget the crisis when it passes,” Sheriff Brad Gates said last week. “But we’re still left over here 24 hours a day, trying to deal with people who have violated the law and find a place in this system for them. And we’re still putting 850 people on the street every week.”

If, as appears increasingly likely, the supervisors come to the conclusion that they cannot afford to build a jail at Gypsum Canyon, they are likely to confront their share of troubles.

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Some of the short-term steps would probably go smoothly, officials say. The county, for instance, is aggressively expanding its alternatives-to-incarceration program, putting more prisoners in home confinement or under electronic surveillance.

Also, work will go ahead on the current expansion of the Theo Lacy Branch Jail, taking that from a 620-bed facility to one of about 1,200 beds. That project has already been approved and is under way.

“Those kinds of things will give us a comfort zone of, I would say, from about two to four years,” said Dan Wooldridge, an aide to Supervisor Don R. Roth, who opposes the Gypsum Canyon jail. “That will give us some time.”

Meanwhile, county officials would have to sketch out the next steps, a slate of politically difficult and financially challenging jail expansions.

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Those ideas are already being talked about in private conversations throughout the Hall of Administration and between board members. Some are more controversial than others, but none is expected to be feasible for at least a year or two.

The Theo Lacy Option

The Theo Lacy jail now holds 622 inmates. They are minimum- and medium-security prisoners, and by agreement with the city of Orange, no maximum-security inmates may be held at that facility.

That agreement took years to hammer out, and ultimately was sealed by Roth, who braved the political risks and pushed for additional jail beds in his own district.

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Double-bunking the single cells in the Theo Lacy jail would give the county an additional 300 to 500 beds, but officials would have to prepare a new environmental-impact report for the site. The city of Orange might challenge it, and it could be years before the issues are resolved.

Additionally, the county could move its animal shelter from where it now sits next to Theo Lacy, and expand into that area, opening up room for hundreds more cells next to the existing jail.

The Musick Option

The James A. Musick Branch Jail, which is located on the Irvine border, holds 1,200 inmates, most of them drunk drivers or petty offenders who qualify for a minimum-security “honor farm.”

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More than 300 of the inmates live in four, 80-person tents erected in 1985 as a “temporary” solution to overcrowding, but they have become virtually permanent fixtures on the shallow, rolling hills of the jail site.

Unlike the other options for jail expansion, Musick has land to grow. And also unlike the others, Musick could add about 300 more prisoners without the county having to prepare an environmental analysis. One is already on the books.

That makes it a likely contender to absorb whatever overflows exist in the coming few years. The trouble is, the Musick jail cannot take serious offenders, and their numbers are growing. Reconfiguring the jail for maximum-security prisoners would take money, and residents who live near the facility have risen up before when faced with the prospect of it expanding.

The Santa Ana Options

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The Central Men’s Jail in Santa Ana, where overcrowding was so bad in the 1970s that a federal judge capped the number of inmates who can be housed there, now holds about 1,300 inmates. It is flanked by the double-bunked Intake/Release Center and the Central Women’s Jail, the only one of the county’s five jail facilities that is not under pressure to expand.

Land is scarce in Santa Ana, but the county could build or hire a contractor to build a new Civic Center jail--a 1,500-bed facility was mentioned by officials in some board offices--or a jail medical center of about 300 beds.

The 1,500-bed facility could find a home on the spot where Sheriff Gates now has his offices. In that scenario, Gates and his aides might be able to move across the street, where a new office building is under construction.

Santa Ana Mayor Daniel H. Young said he would be concerned about any plan to bring a new jail to his city. He added, however, that the board’s inability to proceed with Gypsum Canyon proposal has exposed it as “the ultimate paper tiger.”

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The Katella-Douglass Option

The county could build a new, 1,500-bed jail on the banks of the Santa Ana River, close to Anaheim Stadium. An environmental analysis of that site, while not complete, is close to being done and could be finished quickly.

The problem with Katella-Douglass is that many officials believe the property is simply too good to waste on a jail.

“We own 7 acres of very valuable land there,” one county official said. “We could get a better use of it than a jail.”

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The Desert Jail Option

Supervisor Roth first floated this idea a few years ago, suggesting that Orange County could save money by working together with Riverside County to build a jail in the desert. Land would be cheaper, he reasoned, and therefore both counties could save.

The trouble is, an analysis by the Orange County administrative office found just the opposite. In fact, that report concluded that a desert jail would cost more than one in Gypsum Canyon.

Over a 30-year life span, a Gypsum Canyon jail was estimated to cost as much as $969 million less than one in the desert.

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“There is no way, absolutely no way, to build that jail in the desert,” said one county official last week. “That thing is just stupid.”

What seems most likely, officials agreed, is that if the supervisors pull away from Gypsum Canyon, they will have to use several of the options at their disposal. Alternatives to incarceration will certainly be expanded, as will Theo Lacy and Musick.

The prospect of at least one new jail in Santa Ana also seems likely, though it would involve delicate negotiations with city leaders.

Altogether, those expansions and additions would still leave the county short of what a Gypsum Canyon jail would provide. But some officials have long questioned the need for a facility of Gypsum Canyon’s size, and some believe that a more modest program could be done at half the cost.

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“Everything that relates to jail and our ability to manage the flow will be predicated on the budget,” said Board of Supervisors Chairman Gaddi H. Vasquez. “This issue is propelled by the issue of financing. That’s the bottom line.”

Gypsum Canyon Alternatives

With support for a 6,720-bed jail in Gypsum Canyon apparently crumbling, county officials are sketching out alternatives to absorb the thousands of suspects brought into the county jail system every year. Below are some of the options being discussed.

SHORT-TERM

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Option: Expand Theo Lacy Branch Jail

Yield: 600 beds

Comments: Already under way.

Option: Expand alternatives to incarceration

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Yield: 300 prisoners a year

Comments: All county supervisors support this.

MEDIUM-TERM

Option: Expand James A. Musick Branch Jail

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Yield: 300 beds

Comments: Beds could be added quickly. More would take longer, but the space is there.

Option: Double-bunk Theo Lacy

Yield: 300-500 beds

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Comments: New environmental analysis would have to be prepared.

LONG-TERM

Option: Build a new jail medical center

Yield: 300 beds

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Comments: Would allow current medical beds to be shifted, opening up more space in the system. Total yield of about 400 beds.

Option: Build new jail in Santa Ana or elsewhere

Yield: 1,500 beds

Comments: Any new jail is going to be expensive.

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Option: Build a new jail at Katella-Douglas in Anaheim

Yield: 1,500 beds

Comments: Land is valuable there. County would rather use it for something else.

Total yield if all projects went forward: 5,100 more prisoners per year

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Total yield from Gypsum Canyon: 5,200 beds (6,720-bed total, but financing plan included closing the 1,200-bed Musick facility).

NOTE: Short-term options could be implemented quickly with little opposition. Medium-term options would take several years and face some opposition, but which otherwise appear viable. Long-term options face significant opposition and would be expensive projects for which new revenue would be needed.

Source: Interviews with county officials.


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