With minimal outside oversight, California has spawned a multibillion-dollar prison construction industry that extends from Wall Street money managers to hard hats who build the bastilles of concrete, steel and razor wire.
The industry is expected to grow on an even grander scale as tens of thousands of felons are sentenced to prison under the state’s new “three strikes” law.
“We call it our Pentagon around here,” said Sen. Robert Presley (D-Riverside), who has sponsored many prison construction bills. “We say that because it costs so much. It’s like the military.”
During the past decade, the Department of Corrections, carrying out the tough-on-crime policies of the past two governors, has added 40,524 prison cells and dormitory beds by building 16 prisons and renovating old ones.
The department has spent $5 billion on planning, engineering and construction of new prisons, and created a bond debt that will double that amount to $10 billion with interest payments.
That money has bought the nation’s biggest, most expensive prisons. Each houses 4,000 inmates and costs $200 million or more to build. Each has 8 1/2 miles of razor wire, an arsenal of 337 guns, and a $2-million computerized alarm system.
With high-tech security, a guard can scan a console in a control booth and unlock 200 cell doors by pushing a button. Prisons also have amenities such as $550 milkshake makers for staff and $850 electric pottery wheels for inmates.
While the defense industry shrinks in California, officials and contractors who design and build prisons are readying themselves for a new and more costly boom necessitated by the “three strikes” law signed by Gov. Pete Wilson in March. On Nov. 8, the electorate will vote on an initiative duplicating the legislation.
Under “three strikes,” terms for many second-time felons will double. Many three-time losers will be sentenced to 25 years to life. Time off for good behavior will be slashed.
As a result, state corrections officials estimate that the population behind bars will surpass 230,000 by the turn of the century--about 100,000 more than today’s total--and 25 new prisons will be needed, including one for women. That would give California 58 prisons, plus several minimum security work camps.
“If the Legislature can fund them, we can build them,” said Craig Brown, undersecretary of the Youth and Adult Correctional Agency, in charge of the prison system. “We have been at it a long time. We’re damned good at it.”
Brown knows that it’s a big if. This summer, the Legislature turned down Wilson’s request to place on the November ballot a $2-billion prison construction bond for six prisons as a first installment on “three strikes.”
To examine the current prison construction program and trace its roots, The Times reviewed thousands of pages of documents and interviewed dozens of officials, contractors and critics.
Records show that the Corrections Department consistently has put up prisons in four years, from the time planning begins until the cell doors lock. And the prisons generally have been built within budget, with overruns averaging 10%.
But The Times also found:
* California’s prison construction budget is the biggest in the nation, partly because the state builds prisons almost exclusively to house the highest risk inmates, rather than erect lower security institutions, such as work camps. “We can shave costs today, and we’ll pay for it later--either in staff costs immediately, or in maintenance,” Brown said.
* Legislators, auditors and budget analysts acknowledge that they have provided limited oversight of the construction program.
“Basically, the Administration is able to do whatever it wants,” said Gerald Beavers of the legislative analyst’s office, which no longer has the staff to scrutinize prison construction. “There are no controls.”
The Legislature’s Joint Committee on Prison Construction and Operations once had four staff members, but now has one part-time aide. The committee has met only once this year.
The chairman, Presley, is leaving office to run for the State Board of Equalization. Although he believes the construction program is efficient, Presley fears that with the boom coming, no one will take over his role. “They need oversight, something that big,” he said.
Corrections Department Director James Gomez insists that his actions are watched closely. Although legislators often call him to testify on policy issues, he could not recall when he last testified about construction.
“Every time we have a freeway mile, do we have a hearing?” Gomez asked. “We had a tremendous number of hearings in the 1980s. Now there is a comfort level among the members of the Legislature that we are doing a good job.”
* The new prisons have had numerous construction or equipment-related problems. Kitchen floors have had to be torn out and replaced. Sophisticated alarm systems have needed replacement. All 2,200 cells doors in one prison were replaced for $8 million because inmates could kick them open. Officials say such problems are to be expected in such a large undertaking.
* Long after prison construction is finished, the costs keep rising as the state pays off the debt. California’s $5 billion prisons debt is paid down annually from the state’s $38-billion general fund.
In 1982, when California embarked on the prison building program, the state paid $218 million in debt service on bonds used for all state projects, from university construction to purchase of state park land. Now, the state pays almost twice that sum each year to repay principal and interest on prison bonds alone.
* The construction program is heavy with administrative costs, critics say. The Corrections Department’s planning and construction division has grown from two in 1983 to a staff of 216 with an annual budget of $17 million.
The main consultant is Kitchell Capital Expenditures Management, which since 1982 has been paid $73 million to manage the construction program.
State prison officials insist that the staff is lean. But federal prison officials say they are using a planning and construction staff of only 120 to oversee the design and construction of two dozen federal prisons. High-security federal prisons cost $28,000 per cell less than the $113,000 per cell that California spends, according to the private Criminal Justice Institute.
William Patrick, head of the federal prison building program, said California’s “high-priced construction management” is one reason the state prisons are pricey. “We could not afford the level of management that the state of California has, both in-house and outside,” he said.
* Prisons officials who have run the construction program have been courted by lobbyists. Prison contractors regularly take corrections officials to lunches and dinners, officials declare in annual conflict-of-interest statements.
Kyle McKinsey, a top corrections official, reported taking a complimentary $500 steelhead fishing derby ticket. Glenn Smedley, a Del Norte County supervisor, said he helped arrange the trip, which was paid for by a local business as a “goodwill” gesture because of McKinsey’s work on Pelican Bay State Prison.
* A revolving door swung between prison contractors and state corrections officials during the George Deukmejian Administration.
Rodney Blonien--who was in charge of prison building as Deukmejian’s undersecretary of the Youth and Adult Correctional Agency--is now a prominent lobbyist. In 1987, he went to work for a New York-based law firm, which helped arrange financing for two prisons while Blonien was undersecretary.
Blonien later put on a $6,000 golf party for his friends in the Deukmejian Administration. In the Wilson years, he has represented prison contractors, cities that have or want prisons, and landowners who sold land on which a prison sits.
In an interview, Blonien said:"Corrections is an area of specialized expertise that most people don’t have. The fact that I supervised that area for three years and did well at it established a certain amount of credibility.”
Two other top corrections officials went to work for prison contractors. One took a post managing Kitchell’s West Coast operations, and since has returned to the department.
Gomez said he warns contractors not to raid his staff.
* Although individual prison contractors are not major campaign donors, politicians who support prison construction receive money from one of the biggest beneficiaries--the California Correctional Peace Officers Assn.
As the prison system has expanded, the guards union has grown by roughly 10% a year.
The union has become a major source of campaign money. It gave more than $900,000 to Wilson in his run for governor in 1990, and $75,000 so far this year. After Assemblyman John Vasconcellos (D-Santa Clara) signed a ballot argument against new prison construction and questioned pay for prison officers, the union spent $90,000 in 1992 attempting to unseat him. This year, the union is the second-largest donor to the “three strikes” initiative, giving $101,000.
Union President Don Novey said his organization donates money “to change the system” so career criminals are locked up for life, not to increase the number of guards. “There are scumbags out there,” Novey said.
“Three strikes” is the latest of roughly 1,100 changes to the Penal Code made during the past 15 years lengthening prison terms. In that period the state prison population has grown from fewer than 30,000 inmates to more than 126,000, the majority serving time for drug and property crimes.
“The result is an exploding Department of Corrections budget and prison construction program that divert resources from other valuable, needed state programs,” the Little Hoover Commission concluded in a report this year.
In the middle 1970s, there were 12 prisons, and many of the old and overcrowded institutions such as San Quentin, Soledad and Folsom were targets of civil rights lawsuits.
In June, 1982, voters approved a $495-million bond issue to remodel old prisons and build new ones. The next year, Deukmejian took over as governor and set out to follow through on campaign promises to make streets safe by locking up criminals.
At his urging, lawmakers began passing bills to speed prison construction. Perhaps the most important one gave the Legislature authority to approve bond sales without voter consent.
Voters have approved general obligation bonds to build prisons five times since 1982 for a total of $2.4 billion. However, since 1984 lawmakers also have sold a different type of bond, called a lease revenue bond, without voter consent to construct prisons at an ultimate cost of $5.6 billion to taxpayers.
California’s use of bond financing has made Wall Street a key part of the prison industry. Investments houses, bond attorneys and other consultants have received more than $35 million from the sale of lease revenue bonds.
Prison construction also is a boon for architectural firms and builders.
“Not many people are building high-rise buildings and hotels anymore,” said Dave Grubb, president of Swinerton & Walberg, a construction firm in San Francisco that routinely bids on prison jobs.
Contractors hungry for work submit bids that often are below the estimated cost, making them marginally profitable and lowering the cost to the state.
“The Department of Corrections is a very difficult client,” said a small contractor. “We would not be working for them if we didn’t have to. They recognize they’re the only game in town, and they use it to their advantage.”
Nationwide, prison construction is a $5-billion-a-year business. It is a niche that has attracted large builders, including many that have done major projects for the Pentagon.
“It has allowed us to have a reasonably steady flow of work,” said Jim Thomas, regional head of CRSS Constructors Inc., which has been construction manager at four California prisons.
Thomas’ company is part of the Assn. of California Construction Managers, a consortium of firms represented by Blonien. CRSS has given $17,000 to California campaigns since 1987. “Have we contributed a little money to campaigns? Yes,” Thomas said. “Is it to get work? No.”
With few exceptions, every cellblock, kitchen and exercise yard in every new prison looks like the next. Prison officials call it a cookie-cutter design. The dough needed for construction is considerable.
State-by-state comparisons are difficult because of accounting differences. But a survey by the private Criminal Justice Institute in New York shows that although the national average for a high-security prison cell is $80,000, California spends $113,000 per cell.
The survey also found that California builds its minimum-security cells for almost $60,000 each, twice the national average.
California’s heavy use of high-tech equipment, concrete and steel contribute to the higher costs, according to Patrick, head of the federal construction program. “They have a lot of specialty detention stuff--locks, grills, electronics,” he said.
Although California has the nation’s most expensive construction program, Texas claims title for building the most cells.
In the next year and a half, Texas will construct 80,000 prison beds. The cost: $1.5 billion.
By contrast, Wilson this year called for six new prisons with about 28,000 beds. The cost: $2 billion.
G. Kevin Carruth, head of the California Corrections Department’s planning and construction division, said the Texas estimates seem low, and he cited reasons for steeper costs here: Labor rates are 35% higher; California has costly earthquake and environmental codes, and this state taxes construction material and equipment.
California spends extra on design work to reduce the need for staffing, Carruth said. In new prisons, a single housing unit, populated by 200 felons, has no more than three officers, including one who is armed and located in a control booth, and two on the floor.
“When you look at construction costs, you have to look for quality, durability, and for security and minimal staffing. Sometimes those things cost you money,” Carruth said.
While Texas cuts costs by building more low-security housing and making far heavier use of inmate labor, California provides comforts not found there. For example, California has cafeterias for employees. At Calipatria and Centinela prisons in Imperial County, air-conditioning systems were installed for $11 million. Other new prisons have swamp coolers for cellblocks.
Some comforts are partly attributable to the influence of California’s prison guards union, which deploys an officer to the department’s planning and construction division. “If it wasn’t air conditioned, the thing wouldn’t last 60 days,” Novey said of the Imperial County prisons, suggesting that more officers would transfer out and inmates might riot.
Others amenities, such as the apartments maintained at each prison for conjugal visits, are a valuable way of controlling inmates through the reward system, officials said.
Lawmakers often call on the Corrections Department to cut costs. Assemblyman Ross Johnson (R-Fullerton) has urged that the state build Spartan barracks, patrolled by armed guards with directions to shoot escapees.
But Carruth called the barracks idea simplistic, and said the state tries to hold down costs in other ways. One money-saving idea is lethal electric fences, designed to prevent escapes and to reduce the need for guards.
When the department pitched the concept, officials said 40 prisons and camps could be equipped for $10 million, resulting in annual savings of $47 million.
But after the governor and Legislature signed off, the department concluded that fences should be installed at only 19 prisons. Yet the cost has risen to $18 million--and the estimated savings dropped to $26 million.
Even with the fences, the department is building air-conditioned guard towers at a cost of $1.2 million per prison, although the towers will not normally be staffed.
“Electrified fences are a big experiment,” Brown said. “We think it’s going to work. But it may not work, and more importantly, they have scheduled maintenance. They are going to be shut down periodically.”
The fences may end up costing more. They do not distinguish between escapees and wildlife. Birds, including some protected burrowing owls, have been electrocuted at Calipatria prison. After hiring ornithologists and other consultants to study the problem, the Corrections Department is considering installing anti-perching devices at a cost of $150,000 per prison.
The budget for maintaining and improving the current stock of prisons runs about $55 million annually, including repairs to new prisons.
One that has had repeated problems is R. J. Donovan, which opened near San Diego in 1987. Guards encountered so many problems with electronic panels--which control vital functions such as opening and locking cell doors--that officials are considering replacing them at a cost of more than $500,000.
“Several electrical fires have occurred in these control panels, sending dangerous fumes and smoke into the confined area of a manned control booth,” a recent memo said.
Carruth said the department tried to save money during Donovan’s construction, and is paying for the “savings” now in high repair bills.
But records show that other new prisons, including some that opened later than Donovan, also have had problems:
Underground piping has corroded at Corcoran, Avenal, New Folsom and the new prison at Vacaville. Repair cost: $45,000 per site.
At Corcoran State Prison, control consoles failed, leaving whole housing units “entirely electronically disabled” for several days in 1991 and 1992. Repair cost: $113,000.
Corcoran also had problems with low technology. Tower guards discovered that windows would jam, and tended to crash shut. There were 29 reported injuries, and the union filed a grievance. Replacement cost: $72,000.
At Avenal, utility poles are sinking, tilting and collapsing beneath the weight of phone cables, threatening the entire communications system. Repair cost: $1.6 million.
At Chuckwalla State Prison near Blythe, desert sand made its way into natural gas valves, jamming them and causing failure of 20 gas-fired pieces of equipment, such as stoves, in one year. In 1992, gas leaked into a cellblock, resulting in a small explosion and an evacuation. Repair cost: $722,942.
California prisons employ high-tech gadgetry. And when such systems fail, the costs are high.
Each officer has a personal alarm, which can be triggered in an emergency, alerting a central command center. The $2-million system also includes fire alarms and various other sensors. At the prisons in Delano and Wasco in the Central Valley, and one in Imperial County, alarms have experienced “numerous malfunctions, rendering the systems substantially unreliable and unstable,” according to the state.
The matter has degenerated into litigation with the contractor, Shorrock Electronics of Maryland. The department claims that the entire system must be replaced and has hired a Utah firm to do the work at a cost of more than $3.5 million.
Shorrock counters that the system was properly installed and that any problems can be repaired.
The department’s most embarrassing construction mishap occurred at $240-million Pelican Bay State Prison just south of the Oregon border--California’s highest-security prison.
When Pelican Bay was being designed, corrections officials agreed to use a different type of locking device, a pneumatic design, rather than electrically operated doors. After the prison opened in 1989, guards found that inmates could kick the doors open, jam them and knock them off their tracks.
Corrections officials hired a new contractor to install an entirely new electronically operated system for the 2,226 doors. The project cost: $6.6 million, plus $1.9 million in design.
The department is seeking more than $8 million from the firms that originally installed the doors, Blount Inc. and J. A. Jones.
The contractors insist that any defects could have been fixed easily. “The doors did not need to be replaced. They could have been repaired,” said Richard Sipos, attorney for J. A. Jones. “We gave them what they wanted, and they were dissatisfied with it.”
About This Series
Prison building already has become a multibillion-dollar industry in California, and with the “three strikes” law, an even bigger boom is forecast for coming decades. The Times visited prisons from the Imperial Valley to the North Coast, and reviewed thousands of pages of public records to examine the state’s prison construction program, life inside the penitentiaries and issues that already are severely straining the penal system.
Today: How tough-on-crime legislation has created a Pentagon-like bureaucracy and generated unprecedented prison construction that has touched all corners of the state.
Monday: A journey through the California prisons system, where the flow of inmates has far outsripped construction of 16 facilities since 1984.
Tuesday: With the state planning up to 25 more prisons by the turn of the century, many communities weigh the potential impacts on jobs, housing, public services and property values.
Wednesday: The cost of keeping the ever-expanding prison system running is being driven ever higher by the influx of inmates, inflated salaries and health care costs.