California Prison Construction Running Behind Schedule

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Lawmakers in Sacramento Tuesday got a less-than-impressive progress report on efforts to reduce overcrowding in state prisons. The Department of Corrections has packed about 170,000 inmates into prisons designed for half that many. Nearly a year ago, the State Legislature passed a plan to ease the overcrowding. But KPCC's Julie Small reports that since then, the Department of Corrections has spent most of the time changing that plan.

Julie Small: California prisons are so crowded that nearly 10% of inmates have to sleep in temporary bunks in gyms and day rooms. The Department of Corrections calls 'em "bad beds." The prison reform plan state legislators passed last year called for building 16,000 permanent beds to replace the "bad beds." The Senate Public Safety Committee wanted to know how that's going.

Not so well, it turns out. Deborah Hysen – who's in charge of prison construction – says building inside the prisons didn't wash in the real world.

Deborah Hysen: You've got to check every single tool that a contractor brings in and brings out. You might have 500 laborers at any given point on a project of that size. So what we did was we looked at what that translated to in terms of lost time. It was about 40%; 40% of your day's work.

Small: So now Corrections will build new inmate dormitories on prison grounds, but separate from the current buildings. That way, contractors can come and go. And when they're done, those new dorms will be surrounded by new security fences. But adding beds this way means fewer extra beds... about 3,000 fewer.

It turns out that Corrections didn't plan for enough space for inmate education and rehab programs. Corrections also didn't factor in room for medical infirmaries for inmates. Not good when a federal judge has ordered California to improve prison medical care. Still... Corrections says this plan to add extra prison beds is a good one – although it'll take more than a year and a half to finish. Attorney Don Spector with the Prison Law Office says it all sounds familiar.

Don Spector: When I was told that they hadn't even gone to the public works board to get approval for some construction, I said, "Why am I not surprised?" Because we've heard this so often before.

Small: Spector successfully sued the state for failing to provide inmates with adequate medical care about a decade ago. He's since asked a three-judge panel to cap the state's inmate population to reduce overcrowding so prison medical staff won't be spread so thin. Spector says building more prison beds won't solve the overcrowding problem... especially if Corrections keeps delaying construction.