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Governor Pledges Help for Twin Towers Jail

TIMES STAFF WRITER

With state funding for operating the massive new Twin Towers jail in peril, Gov. Pete Wilson pledged Wednesday to do everything possible to secure the money the county needs to keep the long-delayed high-rise facility up and running.

As hundreds of VIPs and a large group of disgruntled sheriff’s deputies--trying to pressure the county for a new union contract--watched at a morning ribbon-cutting outside the jail, Wilson declared that “the first duty a civilized society owes to its members is to protect them.”

“Twin Towers is an essential resource for the county of Los Angeles and the state of California,” Wilson said. “And I will do all that I can to ensure that it becomes fully operational with all deliberate speed.”

Wilson said he will appeal to the Legislature for funds that the Sheriff’s Department says it desperately needs to operate the new jail, which stood vacant for 16 months because of funding woes.

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On the eve of the dedication, sheriff’s officials had learned that state Sen. Mike Thompson (D-St. Helena), head of the state Joint Legislative Budget Committee, refused to approve a lease contract that would have provided the county with $137 million over five years for beds at other county jails to house state inmates. Sheriff’s officials now must plead their case to a committee of state legislators.

The senator, in a letter this week, questioned whether the state needs the beds or whether a deal with Los Angeles County would make financial sense.

“If they can come in and prove that their deal is the best for the taxpayer and show us that our numbers are wrong, we will certainly approve it,” said Thompson’s spokesman, Ed Matovcik.

A legislative committee hearing is expected to be set on the matter within weeks.

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Wilson said he believes Thompson may have been misled by a legislative analyst’s report that showed a dip in the state’s prison population.

“I’m confident they will agree with everyone here today that this facility must go forward,” Wilson said. “It makes sense financially and it makes sense in terms of security.”

Construction on the $373-million Twin Towers was completed in October 1995, with tens of millions of dollars raised through taxpayer-backed bonds.

The eight-story jail, however, stood empty until late last month because Los Angeles County lacked money to pay for operating expenses, most recently estimated at $75 million annually. Deals to lease beds to state and federal authorities had yielded the prospect of money to open the jail, and nearly 200 maximum security inmates were moved into lockup Jan. 25 to test out the 4,100-bed facility.

Even without the state funds, sheriff’s officials have vowed to keep the facility open.

“We’ll have to figure out a way,” said Undersheriff Jerry Harper.

Some of the people at the ribbon cutting Wednesday would prefer to see the lockup closed down. A small group of protesters carried placards with messages that said, “Educate, Don’t Incarcerate.”

“We feel the jail is being used as a place to warehouse the poor,” said Donald Nollar, member of the Los Angeles Catholic Worker community. ‘The state should use the funds to create job opportunities.”

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About 200 sheriff’s deputies, clad in T-shirts that read “No Raise, No Contract, No Public Safety,” quietly filed out in mid-ceremony. “We’re not going to break any laws,” said Pete Brodie, president of the Assn. of L.A. Deputy Sheriffs, which is requesting a 5% annual pay increase. '[But] We want to send a message to the sheriff. . . . We want a raise.”

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Jail Woes

Before opening Twin Towers, the Sheriff’s Department had closed four jails since 1993, leaving space for 5,239 fewer inmates. Here are some consequences of the space crunch:

* EARLY RELEASES: Most convicted Los Angeles County jail inmates now serve less than 25% of their court-imposed sentences under the sheriff’s early release program.

* WORK RELEASES: Tens of thousands of convicts have been allowed to serve their sentences outside of jail under the sheriff’s work release program.

* SKIP-OUTS: Thousands of work release participants, among them violent and repeat offenders convicted of assault, armed robbery and drug dealing, have gone on the lam, often committing new crimes.

Sheriff’s officials say the opening of the 4,100-bed Twin Towers will not provide enough new beds to increase the time that convicted jail inmates serve behind bars. Instead, the sheriff plans to use Twin Towers to house hardened inmates now in other jails and to house female prisoners for several years while repairs are made at the Sybil Brand Institute.

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