It’s one of California’s oldest prisons still in operation if not the oldest. The San Quentin State Prison was first built in July of 1852 at Point Quentin in Marin County just north of here on more than 400 pristine acres of Northern California land.
It’s history is illustrious. Johnny Cash performed a live concert there in 1969, you might have heard. Metallica shot the video for “St. Anger” there as well in 2003, which would have been a lot cooler if it was 20 years before and the song was “Dyers Eve,” but whatever.
San Quentin’s also the place where the major news cable networks like to go when they want to do a two-hour reality special titled something like “Dudes Looking Murderous in Front of a Camera While a Voiceover Describes the Prison’s Simple Day-to-Day Operations, But No One’s Really Paying Attention to the Reporter Because They’re Engrossed by the Distant Prospect That the Guy With Tattoos on His Head Playing Cards Might at Any Moment Stab in the Throat the Guy Playing Bones Nearby.”
Larry King did one recently where he kept asking a group of pre-selected inmates to detail their stories of prison rape and clandestine drug use, but they mostly wanted to talk about rehabilitation and missing their kids.
Anyway, San Quentin also houses all of California’s male condemned inmates, the people scheduled to be executed for committing murder and/or littering in Marin County and/or not voting for Mark Leno. Pumping poison into condemned jail inmates is a costly business, more costly than simply jailing them for life, anti-death penalty advocates contend, if you factor in all of the appeals and the special housing requirements.
Metallica in San Quentin
In fact, housing the people in California who usually wait years to die is more expensive than ever before. Just look at the report released yesterday by the California State Auditor, which has mostly been overlooked by the press so far [PDF].
There were about 635 male inmates waiting for lethal injection at San Quentin as of April. (Fifteen women are in a Chowchilla facility. Guardian executive editor Tim Redmond just told us about half of the male inmates don’t have lawyers.) The California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation wants to be able to house up to 1,152 male inmates in the future, which means we anticipate a lot more executions.
Lawmakers began talking about building new facilities for them all the way back in 1992 because the shelter situation at San Quentin is abysmal and the population of condemned inmates has grown so much. But it wasn’t until 2003 that state corrections officials actually asked the legislature for $220 million to build a new “condemned inmate complex” at San Quentin, which was approved.
As the project moved forward, however, from design to preparing for construction, the costs ballooned. The price of construction materials went way up and planners didn’t foresee soil mitigation problems, among other things. The state wants to now cut about 200 cells from the plans, but despite that huge reduction, which could require piling potentially violent inmates on top of one another, the state is still about $136 million short of the money it needs to build the complex, according to figures the corrections department has been relying on.
This in a state that spends nearly $10 billion a year just keeping the current 171,000 people, condemned to death or not, behind bars. And the construction costs cited above don’t even include what will be required to run the new complex each year – about $58.8 million annually, according to a consultant hired by the state. Also, while we’re aware that despite our lofty ideals here at the Guardian California’s bloated prison system isn’t going to suddenly be dismantled tomorrow, it’s worth pointing out that San Quentin sits on prime real estate.
Now state auditors have revealed that even the increased total estimate of $356 million used by corrections officials up until now is wrong, and it’s actually going to cost $39.3 million more than that, or just short of $400 million total, twice what was originally expected back in 2003. The project’s been put on hold due to the cost increases.
You can find the report at the state auditor’s Web site. But we found this segment particularly interesting:
“Corrections currently plans to double-cell (placing two inmates in one cell) certain condemned inmates to maximize the [complex’s] capacity; however, our consultant and other experts we spoke with raised concerns with this proposal. Specifically, the experts stated that capital cases often contain very personal, private, and sensitive materials and that double-celling raises serious concerns about maintaining confidentiality during the preparation to defend a condemned inmate during the appeal process. In addition, our consultant expressed concern that double-celling increases the risk of harm to the inmates who are housed together, particularly for long periods of time.”