State prison officials are moving forward with plans to build a new death row at San Quentin, but elected officials and business interests in Marin County are urging the state to reconsider. Although the state Department of Corrections is scheduled to certify a final environmental impact report for the project this month, Marin County is still seeking a reprieve from the governor's office.
A collection of interests in Marin County opposes the project because they believe the project would commit the state to continuing operations at the 153-year-old prison for a long time. The Marin County faction would like to see the prison closed eventually and the site reused for a multi-modal transit hub, housing and parks.
"It is a very old facility. It is extremely expensive to operate," said Assemblyman Joe Nation (D-San Rafael). "I think it is a mistake to commit the state to operating that facility for another 100 years, which is what the death row project would do."
There is little dispute that San Quentin occupies prime real estate: 432 acres on a point that juts into San Francisco Bay, just south of the Richmond-San Rafael Bridge. The prison has a capacity of about 6,200 inmates and has housed all condemned inmates since 1934. There are nearly 650 inmates who have been sentenced to death at San Quentin, and the number continues to rise by several dozen every year. The state has executed 10 people since the death penalty was reinstated in 1976.
There is also little dispute that the state needs a new death row. The existing facility was designed for fewer than 300 condemned inmates, meaning that death row inmates are held in facilities that house a variety of inmates at San Quentin. State prison officials and even prisoner advocates say the current situation is not secure for prisoners, guards or the outside community.
In 2003, the Legislature approved $220 million for a death row that could accommodate up to 1,400 male inmates at San Quentin. The 618,0000-square-foot facility on the western-most 40 acres of the prison property would replace a minimum security holding area and support buildings. Last fall, the Department of Corrections released a draft EIR that identified a number of impacts, most of which could be mitigated. One of the primary unmitigated effects would be visual.
During the last few months, Corrections has been writing responses to comments and preparing the final EIR, which is scheduled for public release April 11, agency spokeswoman Terry Thornton said. Secretary Rod Hickman likely will certify the final EIR by the end of this month, she said. That would be the last decision in the process, meaning the agency could then seek bids for construction, she said.
The Marin County coalition, however, is trying to slow that process. Assemblyman Nation and county Supervisor Steve Kinsey hope to meet with the governor, or at least members of the governor's cabinet, before Hickman approves the environmental document.
Kinsey has a counter-proposal for the administration: Temporarily relocate death row to a nearly completed new prison in Delano, but continue carrying out executions at San Quentin. This approach would buy time to re-evaluate San Quentin's future. And if executions continued at San Quentin, politics would be diminished because neither Delano nor any other community outside Marin County would have to deal with the stigma that accompanies the death penalty, he contended.
The state is making a "100-year decision," Kinsey said. "At some point, the 150-year-old portion of the property will become better serving as a park and historic site, although that could be years or decades in the future," he said.
Kinsey and Nation point to a March 2004 report issued by State Auditor Elaine Howle. The auditor concluded that Corrections officials had not adequately considered alternative locations for a new death row, and that the agency had not considered all relevant cost factors, including higher personnel costs that come with operating a prison in Marin County. But Howle also reported that relocating the prison from San Quentin could cost $337 million more than the state would receive from selling the property - a conclusion that bolstered Corrections. Howle recommended the agency conduct additional analysis.
Project detractors contend that their main concern is financial. "We think that it is a very bad economic decision for the region and for the state," Elissa Giambastiani, executive director of the San Rafael Chamber of Commerce, said of the proposed death row project. "They are attempting to build the prison in the most expensive area of the state."
Marin County has some of the most expensive housing in the Bay Area, and, in fact, more of San Quentin's employees live in Sacramento County than anywhere else. Because of the economics, San Quentin employees get a $7,000-a-year-stipend, yet the state still struggles to keep the staff full. Besides ongoing operating expenses, construction costs in Marin are extraordinary, Giambastiani said.
Nation said that if the state were to close the prison, it could get about $750 million for a 270-acre chunk of the site. With the real estate having such value, some San Quentin neighbors are worried that the prison's closure would assist mostly developers - and that large-scale housing development would exacerbate traffic congestion.
Giambastiani said growth fears are unfounded. It is politically impossible to approve a large housing subdivision in slow-growth Marin County, she contended. Additionally, businesses and government entities want the site for a transportation terminal. San Quentin offers a natural deep-water port, which could replace a ferry terminal in nearby Larkspur that requires expensive annual dredging. Also, a proposed Marin-Sonoma rail line would terminate at San Quentin. Both Highway 101 and I-580 are nearby. A transportation hub would have regional benefits, said Nation, who noted that a bridge toll increase approved by Bay Area voters one year ago identified San Quentin as a ferry terminal location.
Kinsey said local officials are considering a re-use plan that would involve a large transit station, roughly 1,000 to 1,500 fairly dense housing units (30% of which would be affordable) around the station, and a limited about of commercial and retail development. The shoreline would be open to the public, he said.
"We are looking at a transit village, "Giambastiani said. "We are not looking at covering it with million-dollar houses."
Still, a new use of the San Quentin property would require a change in state law. As it now stands, the Penal Code requires the state to house condemned inmates at San Quentin.
Assemblyman Joe Nation, (916) 319-2006.
Steve Kinsey, Marin County supervisor, (415) 499-3091.
Elissa Giambastiani, San Rafael Chamber of Commerce, (415) 454-4163.
Department of Corrections project website: www.corr.ca.gov/FacilitiesManagement/CICP/default.asp
State Auditor's report: www.bsa.ca.gov/bsa/summaries/2003-130.html