Report 2003-130 Summary - March 2004

California Department of Corrections: Its Plans to Build a New Condemned-Inmate Complex at San Quentin Are Proceeding, but Its Analysis of Alternative Locations and Costs Was Incomplete


Our review of the California Department of Corrections' (department) plans to build a new condemned-inmate complex at San Quentin revealed:


The California Department of Corrections (department) houses, in three separate facilities at California State Prison, San Quentin (San Quentin), male inmates who have been sentenced to death (condemned inmates). However, the facilities at San Quentin that house condemned inmates do not meet many of the department's design standards for maximum-security facilities, increasing the escape risk for these inmates and posing potential safety concerns to both staff and inmates. Accordingly, the department requested and received spending authority of $220 million in its fiscal year 2003-04 budget to build a new condemned-inmate complex at San Quentin that will likely meet the department's foreseeable needs. The department plans to continue using San Quentin's existing facilities for the prison's other inmates, including minimum-security and newly-sentenced or resentenced inmates from the San Francisco Bay Area.

The planned complex for condemned inmates follows the prototype design the department has used for many of its maximum-security prisons. The department is currently in the process of identifying the project's environmental impacts and estimates that it will complete the complex by 2007. The department based its cost estimate for the complex on its previous experiences in building the same prototype design at other locations.

In analyzing where to house its male condemned inmates, the department considered certain existing prison facilities but concluded that most of them would not be appropriate, due primarily to their remoteness from metropolitan areas. However, the department's analysis did not consider all alternatives, including the possibility of building the new complex at other locations. Additionally, the department's analysis of the potential costs of moving condemned inmates to other locations did not consider all relevant factors, such as annual operating and maintenance costs. Personnel costs are the most significant operating costs for San Quentin. When we compared San Quentin to an alternative location that the department considered—California State Prison, Sacramento—we found that San Quentin's location causes it to face higher personnel costs. However, because the department's analysis was incomplete, we can conclude neither that San Quentin is the best location for the new condemned-inmate complex nor that a better location exists.

Benefits and drawbacks exist for both the continued use of San Quentin as a prison and its reuse for other purposes. Benefits for continuing to house the condemned inmates at San Quentin include providing a timely solution to San Quentin's condemned-inmate housing problem, preserving the unique training and experience of San Quentin staff, and ensuring that condemned inmates are kept in close proximity of the California Supreme Court and the majority of defense attorneys who represent condemned inmates. However, in committing to build a new complex to house male condemned inmates at San Quentin, the State will forgo the opportunity to help Marin County address certain needs. Relocating San Quentin's activities elsewhere and allowing Marin County to develop the property would provide an opportunity for the State to help Marin County address some of its housing and transportation concerns. However, even though the State might realize lower annual operating and maintenance costs if it moved San Quentin's activities to another location, the costs to relocate the San Quentin activities may exceed the proceeds the State would receive from selling the San Quentin property by as much as $337 million. Additionally, if the State moved the condemned inmates to an existing maximum-security facility, it would likely displace other inmates—adding to the department's reported shortage of maximum-security beds. Moreover, for the department to be able to relocate its condemned inmates, the Legislature would have to change the current law that requires most male condemned inmates to be housed at San Quentin, and the department would have to overcome any opposition from other communities to such a move.


If the Legislature decides that it wants a more complete analysis regarding the optimal location for housing male condemned inmates, it should consider these actions:

In the future, the department should include all feasible alternatives and appropriate costs when it analyzes locations for any new prison facilities.


The department generally agrees with the findings of the report. It adds that it believes the report validates the Legislature's decision to build a condemned-inmate complex at San Quentin to correct a serious safety and security situation and that the department can build the complex successfully.