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Costs soar for new death row

Times Staff Writer

Ground has not yet been broken on a new death row proposed at San Quentin State Prison, but the projected cost of the project has soared by nearly 80% for a compound that could be full only three years after it opens, according to a critical audit released Tuesday.

If the facility is built as now envisioned, some condemned inmates would have to reside in cells with others rather than be imprisoned separately as they are now, State Auditor Elaine M. Howle reported.

Howle’s audit details the delays and changes to the $220-million plan that state lawmakers authorized five years ago to house 656 male inmates facing the death penalty. Those prisoners are now scattered across several antiquated, rundown buildings without modern security features.

The current projected cost is more than $395 million to build 768 cells instead of the 1,024 first planned. The cost per cell, projected at $515,000, has more than doubled. Beyond November, every month of delay will cost an additional $2 million.

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“I think this report is a bombshell,” said Assemblyman Jared Huffman (D-San Rafael), who represents the area and requested the audit. “We have known for some time” that the Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation “lowballed the numbers on this project.

” . . . They simply want to build a massive monolith to house all our condemned inmates on the most expensive piece of real estate in Northern California,” he said.

Huffman, echoing Howle’s audit, said the agency had not considered alternatives to the site, on a Marin County bluff overlooking San Francisco Bay. A follow-up audit by Howle next month will explore other options.

In a written response, Matthew Cate, the state corrections secretary recently appointed by Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger, said “a considerable amount of time and money” had already been expended. He wrote that “any alternative site would require a complete redesign of the facility, with a new environmental study and the delay of several more years.”

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The complex was supposed to have been finished last December. Now, construction cannot start until the beginning of next year, state officials said. Bob Caputi, the project director with the corrections department, said a court challenge by Marin County to the project’s environmental impact report was partly to blame for the problems.

“During the period that it was litigated, the costs escalated in the construction industry -- unprecedented cost increases,” Caputi said.

Howle cited other factors that increased expenses. The state decided to reduce the number of buildings at the 44-acre complex from eight to three, but to double them in size from two to four stories, and avoid razing homes and a schoolhouse at San Quentin. Also, soil conditions at the prison will require more substantial building foundations than planners specified.

Executions in California have been on hold for more than two years and cannot resume until a federal judge reauthorizes the state to use its lethal injection chamber at San Quentin, which was recently renovated for $750,000.

Meanwhile, 12 new condemned inmates arrive at San Quentin annually, on average.

On May 28, an Assembly subcommittee rejected the prison agency’s request for an additional $136 million to start constructing the new death row. Assemblyman Juan Arambula (D-Fresno), chairman of the subcommittee, called the cost overruns “alarming.” A joint Assembly and Senate committee is still considering the funding request.

“We didn’t want to throw good money after bad,” Arambula said.

Howle raised concerns about the department’s plan to house two condemned inmates to a cell, saying that could compromise their safety, expose details of their legal cases and invite lawsuits against the state.

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In his response, Cate said housing condemned inmates two to a cell would be no different from his agency’s current practice of putting other kinds of high-security prisoners together.

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michael.rothfeld@latimes.com


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