Bill to propel $12 billion prison construction project sent to governor with budget package

While governor and legislature propose massive cuts to education and 2,000 public works projects are on hold, prison expansion is pushed forward

The solution to prison overcrowding, like this packed gym at the California state prison at Lancaster, is to send prisoners home to take care of their families, not to build more prisons. – Photo: Spencer Weiner, APWhile the governor and the legislature propose massive cuts to education, delays or cancellation of 2,000 public works projects including voter approved projects to retrofit schools – among the budget bills sent to the governor was a bill to fix problems with AB900, the largest prison construction plan in history.

“The governor and our legislature were supposed to be reducing California’s budget deficit. Instead, the legislature passed ABX1-10 – clean up language necessary to implement 2007’s massive prison construction plan,” says Debbie Reyes of the California Prison Moratorium Project, members of the statewide coalition, Californians United for a Responsible Budget (CURB).

AB900 was passed in the early hours of the morning on April 26, 2007, without voter approval and with no public hearings. “As we cancel or delay voter approved projects to retrofit schools, the legislature is moving forward with $12 billion worth of new prison and jail beds – without voter approval and without money to build or operate those new beds,” says Geri Silva of CURB member Families to Amend California’s Three Strikes.

Using lease revenue bonds, AB900 would add up to 53,000 new prison and jail beds and at least $1.6 billion per year in operating costs to California’s $10 billion prison budget. The cost to taxpayers for construction and debt service on the high yield bonds is projected to reach $12 billion. Though the bill suggests that there will be rehabilitation programs created in conjunction with the new prison beds, AB900 does not include money for staff or general operations, let alone new programs.

Late last year, the Pooled Money Investment Board put 2,000 public works projects on hold because the state’s fiscal disaster makes it impossible to sell bonds. California’s credit rating is now the lowest in the nation.

“If we are choosing among public works projects, a positive vision for California’s future and children dictates that we preserve funding for schools and cancel projects for more prison beds,” says Manuel La Fontaine II of All of Us or None, also members of CURB.

“So far, no AB900 beds have been built. No bonds have been sold. And we face an historic budget crisis. These facts, along with the governor’s veto of the budget bills, gives the legislature yet another chance to do the right thing,” says Mary Sutton of Critical Resistance Los Angeles, members of CURB. “We must reduce our reliance on prisons by refusing to pass clean up language for AB900 and canceling the project altogether.”

Initial AB900 projects have faced organized opposition from communities across the state. The residents of the rural town of Madison in Yolo Country filed a lawsuit stating the county supervisors violated state and local laws when they voted for the 15-acre construction project, ignoring the environmental impacts. “The proposed Madison site is in a FEMA-designated high-risk flood zone and an agricultural preserve. It also has a complete lack of water, sewer, electrical and gas infrastructure,” says Robyn Rominger of Save Rural Yolo County.

To address New York’s budget crisis, their governor is proposing to close four prisons. And the federal court currently hearing the case on prison overcrowding is poised to order a reduction in the number of people in prison in California.

Expanding prison capacity would also impact any attempts to reduce the number of people in prison. “We appreciate that the legislature did pass some changes to parole and corrections policies that should reduce the number of people in California’s prisons, but canceling new prison construction needs to be among those changes,” says Carol Strickman of CURB member Legal Services for Prisoners with Children. “History teaches us if you build more beds, you fill those beds.”

For more information, contact Rose Braz at (510) 435-6809 or rose@criticalresistance.org.