Selling San Quentin

In March, state Sen. Jeff Denham (R-Merced) proposed selling San Quentin State Prison as a way of minimizing California’s budget crisis. In covering the story, ABC News noted that the 158-year-old prison was “surrounded by some of the most prized real estate in the Bay Area.” That meant Marin County.

Then in May, immediately before voters soundly rejected five deficit-alleviating ballot proposals, Gov. Schwarzenegger again suggested selling the prison’s 435-acre peninsula, which juts scenically into San Francisco Bay. The story got global attention, running in the London Times, the Los Angeles Times and the Christian Science Monitor. Some estimates put the value of the land as high as $2 billion. After deducting the $1 billion it would cost to build a new prison on cheaper land elsewhere, the state would reap a cool $1 billion on the deal.

Schwarzenegger’s plan was greeted warmly here in Marin, where the idea of building a $220 million (2005), then a $396 million (2008) new death row facility on San Quentin grounds was widely opposed by local politicians and civic leaders. If such an addition were built, it would mean that the aging prison—and state-mandated executions—would remain in Marin for at least another half a century.

For years, Marin’s leadership has eyed the location for other alternatives: a deepwater ferry terminal; a terminus for the SMART commuter rail line when it is built; another state or county park with hiking trails, ball fields and picnic grounds; and, OK, maybe a scattering of homes and a couple of townhouse projects.

As far as Marin is concerned, selling San Quentin is generally considered a win-win. In a Marin I.J. person-on-the-street poll, Marinwood’s Greg Stilson remarked, “I think it’s a good idea; it makes sense to sell it and have housing and transit there.”

Trust me—it is not going to happen.

The reason isn’t because the concept doesn’t make sense; selling San Quentin, pocketing the money and building a prison elsewhere is a sound proposal. Opened in 1852, it is highly inefficient and  overcrowded, with its 5,200 inmates (including 637 convicted murderers) housed in 4,200 cells. Moreover, the proposed 768 state-of-the-art death row cells would cost more than $500,000 each to complete, at which time that facility would also be overcrowded if the court rules against two-to-a-cell bunking. Besides, facing a $24 billion deficit, California definitely needs the money. So why not sell it?

“California’s desire for term limits is one reason why San Quentin won’t be sold,” says former Marin Supervisor Gary Giacomini. “Selling—including demolition, toxic clean-up and re-entitlement—is a long-term proposition, and we have a short-term governor; he needs money fast.” Giacomini estimates selling San Quentin, at best, would take up to six years. “The governor has less than two years to live, politically speaking.”

Another yearning of state voters, capital punishment, presents a second roadblock. California’s constitution mandates executions can only occur at San Quentin and, despite only 14 condemned killers being executed in the 32 years since voters reinstated the death penalty, California continues to hand out death sentences (even though it’s been proven that because of repeated legal appeals, a sentence of life without possibility of parole is less costly than execution). Therefore, three capital-punishment-related obstacles exist to the selling of San Quentin: 1) Moving death row requires amending the constitution, always a challenge. 2) To accommodate legal appeals, death row must be near a metropolitan center. And 3) no metropolitan center wants a death row nearby.

Gov. Ronald Reagan proposed selling San Quentin in 1971. A decade later, a state efficiency commission unanimously seconded the idea. Yet the concept has never gained traction. Sadly, like many worthwhile proposals in today’s chaotic world, it is highly unlikely San Quentin will ever be sold. That’s my point of view. What’s yours?

Email: jwood@marinmagazine.com