By Michael Goldstein
By Dennis Romero
By Sarah Fenske
By Matthew Mullins
By Patrick Range McDonald
By LA Weekly
By Dennis Romero
By Simone Wilson
The guards and the prison bureaucracy have done a good job of selling the new prison plan, making it sound inevitable. Proportionately, they say, San Quentin costs more to maintain than any of the other 32 state prisons. They call it the “money pit.” And they told the Los Angeles Times in a January 22 story that the new prison funding is “bond money that cannot be used for other projects.”
The truth is, this money is entirely discretionary. It is not part of an already-approved bond but a proposed one, a hybrid called a “lease revenue” bond that does not require voter approval, although ultimately the taxpayers do foot the bill. The Legislature will consider this proposal in the coming months as part of the governor’s budget plan.
Even as law-and-order types expound on the necessity of the plan, Burton, the highest-profile California politician who opposes the death penalty, has remained strangely silent. He did not return calls for comment, and his staff declined to speak on the record.
That’s because he’s trying to have it both ways, according to Stephen Kinsey, a supervisor from Marin County who has long advocated razing San Quentin and installing a regional ferry hub in its place. Kinsey, who calls the expansion plan “a terrible idea,” said Burton has privately promised legislators in the area that he will not push the prison plan this year. That pledge came partly in response to a strongly worded letter from Democratic Assemblyman Joe Nation of Marin vowing to oppose any budget proposal that included funds for San Quentin construction.
Whatever Burton’s intent, his silence signals tacit support for the construction of a new death row. Perhaps he believes that it will never actually be built. A similar proposal put forward in the mid-’90s was scuttled in the face of strong community opposition. And it’s not hard to imagine some environmentally savvy Burton constituents of the prison-averse, Marin-activist type discovering a rare species of bird or reptile that must live undisturbed on the planned construction site.
Not all capital-defense attorneys who call the Bay Area home want the new prison built. A few oppose it on the theory that “If we build it, they will come.” Most, though, agree with Steve Fama of the Prison Law Office and welcome any plan to improve the living conditions of those now on the row. They are relieved that San Quentin will remain close at hand — spending an entire day trekking to Pelican Bay or Folsom to visit a client is no one’s idea of time well spent. It is hard enough as it is to persuade high-quality attorneys to represent condemned inmates — more than 100 are now without representation. Imagine the difficulty if the row were moved to a less desirable locale.
Elisabeth Semel, who runs a death-row clinic at UC Berkeley’s Boalt School of Law, is ambivalent. “As a taxpayer I look around, and I see what is happening to our educational system, to our vital social services, and I am deeply troubled by this choice,” Semel said. “Of all the things that could be attended to, I don’t think this is at the top of the list.” But she has witnessed the conditions on death row firsthand and calls them “horrific.”
In this way, clever Davis has appeased his financial backers while gingerly placing the contingent most likely to oppose more prison spending over the proverbial barrel.
Indeed, Burton is leading the effort to cut the state’s massive $5.2 billion prison budget by the early release of nonviolent or elderly convicts, as well as those nearing the end of their sentences. He estimates those cuts could save close to $150 million.
But the real answer goes much further. It would save the taxpayers millions and make Davis a fiscal hero: Shut down the row and send the inmates to other top-security prisons to finish off the life terms they have already started. One could even make the argument that Davis would have the will of the public behind him. Although the majority of Californians still support the death penalty, that majority has been in steady decline. And in the most recent Field Poll, 73 percent of the state’s residents supported a moratorium.
As a result of the legislation passed two years ago, the state is moving a few death-row prisoners to New Folsom Prison, according to Robert Presley. “They are the worst of the worst of the worst,” Presley said. “But we still have to figure out what to do with the rest of them.”
Sara Catania is a Crime and Communities Media Fellow with the Open Society Institute, a New York–based nonprofit dedicated to reforming the criminal-justice system. To read more about the death penalty, go to herL.A. Weekly archive.
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