Opening Day Nears for High Desert Prison


On Feb. 1, if the current schedule holds, busloads of inmates will begin arriving at the new state prison in Lancaster, ending a six-year battle over the $207-million project and giving the Antelope Valley a major new institution.

When the gates close behind the inmates, Los Angeles County--which accounts for nearly 40% of California's prison population--will finally get its first operational state prison. And Antelope Valley residents will get a 252-acre fortress community that is expected to pump about $50 million a year into the economy.

It hasn't always been a friendly pairing. Local leaders for years denounced the prison as a menace. Lancaster and the county sued--unsuccessfully--to stop it. But now that the prison is built, local residents can take some solace in the promise of getting at least 300 of its 800 new jobs.

The 1.2-million-square-foot complex was ready to house inmates in mid-1992, but the opening was delayed until February to save staffing costs because of the state's money shortage. Along the way, the state's plan to build a sister prison in East Los Angeles--a key element of a delicate political compromise that led to the original prison plan--was killed by intense opposition from residents there.

The site was half of a "pain-for-pain" compromise approved by the state Legislature in 1987 to place one prison in the Republican high desert and another in the Democratic East L.A. area. Faced with continuing protests by Eastside residents, Gov. Pete Wilson signed a bill in September that abandoned plans for that half of the bargain.

Lancaster Warden Otis Thurman and his staff have been hurriedly preparing for their debut. "I can run a prison blindfolded. But I don't think 30 years of work prepared me for this kind of activation. I don't think it's anything I'd like to do again," said the former Chino state prison warden.

"It's just like starting a new city. Everything you have in a city we have to initiate here," said state Department of Corrections Lt. J.R. Andrews, a prison spokesman. That includes naming the prison's street and even setting up sweat lodges as sites of worship for American Indian inmates, Andrews said.

One unresolved detail, however, is the new prison's name. State officials picked the name California State Prison--Antelope Valley. But that enraged local officials who didn't want a prison name linked with the valley. So the likely new name will be California State Prison--Los Angeles County, according to Thurman and county officials.

Another issue is the capacity of the new prison. State officials call it a 2,200-bed complex. But it was built with two metal bunks per cell, so the prison actually can house 4,200 inmates. And Thurman predicts his prison will top 3,000 inmates and will be heading toward 4,000 soon after opening.

Most of the Lancaster prison's slated 512 state correctional officers will transfer from other facilities, giving the new operation an experienced work force. But Thurman said most of the facility's teachers, medical staff, kitchen workers and clerical help will be hired locally.

The prison site itself, formerly owned by the county, is on the west side of Lancaster about two miles west of the developed portion of the city. The property, north of Avenue J between 50th and 60th Streets West, adjoins the county's High Desert Hospital and Mira Loma jail.

For now, nothing else surrounds the prison except for Kaufman & Broad's 559-house California Horizon tract under construction south of Avenue J at 60th Street. But Andrews said he didn't think many prison officers would want to buy a house with a back-yard view of their workplace.

Thurman said the state will not automatically send Los Angeles County convicts to Lancaster, although inmates themselves may request it. As of June 30, the county accounted for 40,726 of the 104,352 inmates in the state's overcrowded prison system, now operating at 186% of design capacity.

"They've got a lot of folks around the state waiting to come," the Lancaster warden said. The 200 minimum-security inmates who will help run the complex and perform community service work are due first, followed by medium-security and then maximum-security inmates in the later weeks.

The prison itself is divided into five semi-separate facilities: the dormitory quarters for the 200 minimum-security inmates, two medium-security complexes totaling 1,000 cells, and two maximum-security complexes totaling another 1,000 cells, prison officials said.

The prison also will have work areas for inmates, including a laundry, a factory to produce detergents and cleaning supplies and a print shop. The entire inmate area is surrounded by several razor-wire-topped fences and ringed with a dozen towers staffed by rifle-toting officers.

Some residents are nervous about the new facility, even though state officials insist prisons tend to reduce crime rates in their host communities because the large number of guards increases the percentage of peace officers in the population. "We've really been accepted and we're working hard at that," Thurman said. He invited the public to a daylong prison open house Jan. 13.

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