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Costs for San Quentin’s Proposed New Death Row Spiral Upward

by John E. Dannenberg

As delays mount, San Quentin’s proposed replacement Death Row facility is growing in cost while shrinking in size. In a June 2008 report to the Governor and Legislature, the state Auditor’s office made its first of two reports concerning the cost of the proposed facility being constructed at San Quentin State Prison. A second report issued in July addressed costs associated with locating the facility elsewhere.

The first report compared the original cost plan with current projections, made a reasonableness determination of the current project, estimated whether the proposed facility would meet the state’s needs over the next 20 years, and assessed further cost increases that might result from continuing construction delays. San Quentin’s present condemned population is housed in three buildings dating back to 1930.

The Death Row replacement project began in 2003 with a $220 million estimate to build a 1,024-cell complex with its own infirmary, law library and visiting area. When later studies revealed problems with soil mitigation, environmental concerns and rising labor and material costs, the project was scaled back to 768 cells at an increased estimate of $356 million. The most recent review increases that amount by another $39.3 million (and growing by $2 million per month), plus an activation cost of $7.3 million. Further, estimated annual staffing expenses of $58.8 million portend a total of $1.2 billion in operating costs over the next 20 years.

The state recently proposed double-celling certain prisoners to maximize Death Row’s capacity at 1,152 occupants. However, expert consultants voted against this approach due to confidentiality concerns during the lengthy capital punishment appeals process. Without double-celling, the new facility would reach capacity by 2014 – less than three years after its proposed opening.

Other factors to be considered include higher labor costs in the San Francisco Bay Area compared to more remote prison sites, as well as the impact on access to legal aid for appeals, which are largely conducted in the California State Supreme Court and the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit, both located in San Francisco. Because most “death qualified” attorneys work in the Bay Area, relocating death row prisoners would increase costs for their legal aid.

The state Auditor’s second report, issued in July 2008, offered little in the way of better options. The report noted that the costs of other alternatives for housing Death Row prisoners were likely to be even higher than the current option, because “a significant amount of work has already been conducted” to prepare the new facility at San Quentin.
Thus, the state – and taxpayers – are stuck with the expensive San Quentin replacement Death Row facility, which may not even meet California’s needs for death-sentenced prisoners.

At present, some of the state’s 662 male condemned prisoners are dying of natural causes while awaiting the 20-year cycle of their appeals. With execution by lethal injection still clearing the last hurdles for reinstatement at San Quentin, the Death Row population continues to grow at 14 to 16 new commitments per year rather than stabilize or shrink. Since the death penalty was reinstated in California in 1977, there have been only 14 executions.

Sources: San Francisco Chronicle, California State Auditor Reports 2007-120.1 and 2007-120.2

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