California’s prison system is running its largest-ever deficit, and officials predict a dramatic decline in inmate population this year. The San Francisco Chronicle says it seems like an odd time for the state to erect a prison that will cost more than $700 million to build and more than $110 million annually to operate.
In the tiny town of Delano, workers are constructing a 480-acre campus of concrete, steel and razor wire. The maximum-security facility, equipped with a 4,000-volt electrified fence, is will open next year as California’s 34th prison. The Chronicle says the prison may stand as the ultimate symbol of California’s furious growth in corrections spending. Correctional costs have grown by more than 230 percent in the last 15 years as tough-on-crime fervor dominated state politics, and governors — most notably Gray Davis — coddled the powerful state prison guards union. The state has built 21 prisons since 1980.
Corrections officials say Delano II, a mile from a medium-security prison, is desperately needed for some of the worst offenders now crowded into other facilities. California’s prison population may dip by 15,000 this year, but the number of maximum-security inmates is expected to grow, they say. A Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger seeks to slash waste and inefficiency in the troubled state budget, some suggest a good place to look might be in this field north of Bakersfield.
The head of the state Senate committee overseeing correctional operations wonders whether taxpayers could be footing the bill for “one very expensive white elephant.” “Do we need to be building another prison? Absolutely not,” said Sen. Gloria Romero. But much of Delano II is completed. It was pushed by then-Gov. Davis in 1999, when the Legislature approved it. Prison reformers call Delano II Davis’ “thank you to the prison guards,” sayhs Rose Braz, director of Oakland-based Critical Resistance. The new prison will lead to the hiring of more than 800 new dues-paying guards for the union, one of Davis’s major contributors.
Tougher sentencing laws for career criminals, most notably the voter-approved “three strikes” law, has substantially increased the need for more housing for inmates requiring the highest level of security. Corrections officials predict that the maximum-security population will grow from 25,890 inmates at the end of the this fiscal year to more than 27,500 by 2009.