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State Prison Prepares to Turn On ‘Death Fence’ : Corrections: It was built under bill sponsored by Fullerton’s Rep. Ed Royce when he was in state Senate.

TIMES STAFF WRITER

An electric fence being built around the state prison here--the first so-called death fence installed at a California state prison--will be switched on within a few weeks.

And similar fences are planned for 18 other medium- and maximum-security state prisons, from Crescent City to Otay Mesa, over the next two years.

After some final testing, the 13-foot-high fence at Calipatria State Prison will be activated with a deadly load of 4,000 volts and 500 amperes, enough to electrocute instantly any inmate desperate or foolhardy enough to try to escape.

“You touch the fence and you die,” Chief Deputy Warden Bobbie Lynn Reed said.

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The electric fences are meant as high-voltage salary-savers. Once all 19 fences are up, the Department of Corrections hopes to save $42 million a year by reducing the number of armed guards in towers.

“It is prohibitive to post as many guards as needed to adequately protect the public if prisoners can simply climb over fences at night or when not observed,” said U.S. Rep. Ed Royce (R-Fullerton), who sponsored the bill authorizing the electric fences as a state senator from Anaheim.

“And so, the bill sets up a system whereby there actually are two sets of fences. The first one is not electrified. But on these fences, it indicates that the electrified fence is lethal. And the prisoners are all notified of that beforehand,” Royce said.

At Calipatria, a maximum-security prison with 3,900 hard-core inmates, only two of 12 gun towers will be staffed after the electric fence has been activated, although guards will continue to circle the prison by car 24 hours a day.

It is not as if escapes are a big problem at California prisons. In fact, even though the prison population has increased greatly in 20 years, the number of escapes has dropped, thanks to better prison construction and better training for guards.

In 1972, there were 441 escapes from state prisons. In 1991, there were 72--all but 27 of them from low-security prison camps. The state has 117,380 prisoners.

The fence is in the no-man’s land between two 12-foot-high fences that are topped with razor wire. Warning signs are posted in English and Spanish.

“I think it’s an appropriate 20th-Century technique in a modern prison,” Reed said of the fence. “We live in an electronic age. We use machines and gadgets. It’s a mechanical, electrical device.”

The law requires bilingual warning signs and that the electric fences be placed between other fences to prevent accidents. The state’s newer prisons are designed so that inmates are never near the perimeter fences unless they are being transferred under guard.

At the Calipatria prison, which opened last year on a 325-acre sandy patch of Imperial County east of the Salton Sea, the inmate exercise yards are in the middle of the prison surrounded by what officials call the housing units, two-story buildings where inmates are confined two to a cell. Prisoners cannot see the fences.

The San Quentin-based Prison Law Center, the inmates rights group that is suing the state over alleged brutality at Pelican Bay State Prison in Northern California, is appalled at the electric fences and hints that a lawsuit is possible.

Alison Hardy, a staff attorney, notes that the fences in effect will impose a death penalty for attempting to escape. “We think that’s simply horrifying,” Hardy said.

But Royce countered that prison inmates “know the consequences in advance” of trying to breach an electric fence.

The labor union for the prison guards is having second thoughts. The California Correctional Peace Officers Assn. backed the legislation that authorized the fences but now thinks prison officials will use the fences as justification for cutting manpower too severely.

Prison system policy--which inmates are warned about--has long allowed guards to shoot anyone who touches a perimeter fence. The theory is that a single escape can cause a riot and endanger many lives, both of prisoners and guards.

But the policy also allows guards to fire warning shots or decide not to shoot if a prisoner has collapsed or surrendered.

“We’re losing the human factor,” said Jeff Thompson, the association’s chief lobbyist. “A death wire is a death wire. It’s going to fry anybody who hits it.”

The bill slipped quietly through the Legislature with only token opposition. California joins Massachusetts and Indiana as the only states with electric fences around their prisons.

“When the state was in better economic shape, I doubt it would have gotten through the Legislature,” said Department of Corrections spokesman Tip Kindel. He dismisses Thompson’s concerns as “scare tactics” meant to save jobs for guards.

Calipatria prisoners will soon be informed that the electric fence is in place, although the prison grapevine has probably taken care of that chore.

“I think as long we put up a barrier, and we tell the inmates the rules and are very clear, then if they try to attack a barrier to escape, they have chosen the consequences of that action,” said Reed, who came to Calipatria two months ago after being an associate warden at Donovan State Prison in Otay Mesa, near San Diego.

Cabe M. Martinez is project supervisor with North End Electric in Brawley, and one day recently he looked with pleasure at the $500,000 fence he had helped build.

“I take pride in my work,” Martinez said. “If I do something, I do it right the first time so I don’t have to fix it.”

Martinez and his boss, Egliberto Valdez, would like to get the contracts for the fences at other prisons. They figure they have learned how to do it right--how to have the right amount of tension in the 15 horizontal wires, how to prevent the wires from expanding in the summer heat, how to prevent shorting out.

Martinez said he has worked 500 hours on what he proudly calls “my fence.” And he will not be bothered if someday he hears that his fence has killed a prisoner.

“If they get to the fence, they’re somewhere they shouldn’t be,” Martinez said. “If you play, you must pay.”


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