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Trouble for a New Death Row

A proposal by Governor Gray Davis to build a new $220 million death row at San Quentin hit a hurdle last week when the Legislature’s top budget expert came out against the plan.

As part of her review of Davis’ proposed 2003-2004 budget, nonpartisan legislative analyst Elizabeth Hill found the pitch for a 1,000-bed maximum-security prison short on details and too limited in scope to justify the expense. “We acknowledge that the existing housing for this population is not ideal,” she wrote. But in its current form, “The project is not ready to proceed.”

Hill noted if the death-row population continues to grow at its current rate, the new prison would be full in 10 years. Since the proposal did not say whether the San Quentin site could accommodate expansion, she said, the plan is “only an interim solution.”

Hill also said the cost is too high when compared with other prisons built in recent years — a new San Quentin cell would cost about $200,000 compared to $142,000 at a new maximum-security prison in Delano.

The death-row plan will be reviewed by the Legislature as part of budget negotiations over the next several months.

More than 600 men are housed in aging and overcrowded quarters at San Quentin, the nation’s largest death row (condemned women are held at a separate prison). In an interview, warden Jeanne Woodford called prison conditions “very unsafe” for both staff and inmates. “Over a couple-year period there were several staff assaults and several attempts to assault staff, as well as inmates cutting out of the yard,” Woodford said. “Our physical plant allows for many blind spots.”

The push for a new death row has brought together an unlikely coalition of prison officials — Bay Area capital defense attorneys and prisoners’ rights advocates — motivated by a desire for improved safety for staff or better living conditions for inmates.

The project would be paid for with a lease-revenue bond, which requires legislative approval. Money for the bond, which would be due in 2007, would come from the General Fund.

Earlier this month Woodford opened the doors of death row to the media for the first time in 30 years, leading a dozen handpicked journalists on a four-hour tour of the condemned inmates’ housing. “I do think most people who look at this understand there is a need,” she said. “People may not agree on the solution, but I’m very pleased that people are discussing it.”

—Sara Catania