SACRAMENTO WATCH : Political Prisoners

Gov. Pete Wilson, in an admirable display of flexibility and pragmatism that contrasted with his predecessor's stubbornness in a seven-year-old issue, has finally ended a political stalemate over a proposed prison near downtown Los Angeles.

Since the mid-1980s, state officials had planned to build a prison southeast of Los Angeles' Civic Center; since the mid-1980s, Eastside community activists and church groups had opposed what they considered yet another government intrusion into their neighborhood. The paralyzing opposition stalled construction despite a pressing need for more prisons: The state penal system currently operates at 175% of capacity.

To kill the controversial prison plan, Wilson signed a bill by state Sen. Art Torres (D-Los Angeles) that sets aside funds to build three prisons and allows a new prison in rural north Los Angeles County to open in February. Decoupling the Lancaster prison and the proposed Los Angeles prison was necessary because the two projects had been welded together by the Legislature. Sacramento wanted two state prisons in Los Angeles in part because more than a third of all state inmates come from Los Angeles County.

Fairness requires spreading the burden of housing state prisoners, to be sure. But Eastside residents argued persistently, and persuasively, that their neighborhood already had more than its fair share of local and federal penal institutions. At least their victory has cleared a political roadblock that kept the state from meeting urgent prison needs elsewhere.

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