san-quentin-1999.jpgGov. Jerry Brown today announced the cancellation of what some termed the “Cadillac Death Row Project”–a $356 million plan to build new housing for death row inmates at San Quentin State Prison.

The project began in 2003 with plans to expand death row capacity from about 700 inmates to 1,152, according to the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation.

But the construction plan was met with harsh criticism from several policymakers who claimed that building new houses for death row inmates would be too costly in the wake of a recession.

“We have done just about everything you can think of over the past four and a half years to stop this project,” said Assemblyman Jared Huffman, whose district covers communities in Marin and Sonoma counties.

“We do have a need for better housing for condemned inmates, but you don’t have to build the most expensive housing on the planet to solve that need,” he said.

Huffman, D-San Rafael, referred to the construction plan as the “Cadillac Death Row Project” because of the swankier digs officials had planned for San Quentin inmates.

Among many improvements, crews planned to demolish current housing and build new units within the 432-acre lot in Marin County where San Quentin is located.

Huffman authored a bill intending to put funding restrictions on the project and to postpone it until federal court litigation on prison overcrowding had reached a resolution.

But in 2010, then-Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger vetoed the bill, which prompted Marin County officials to file a lawsuit in November. The lawsuit claimed Schwarzenegger lacked the authority to issue the veto.

A county spokesperson was not immediately available to comment on the lawsuit.

“Without that lawsuit, this cancellation may not have happened, and we might not have saved $1.6 billion that would have been spent on the project,” Huffman said, adding he was jubilant when he heard news of the cancellation.

The $1.6 billion was an estimate released by state auditors in 2008 of how much the new housing would cost California to run over a 20-year period, Huffman said.

Since receiving approval in 2003, architects and crews have spent about $20 million of the $356 million budget on designing and planning the housing, CDCR spokesman Paul Verke said.

In addition, about $2 million was spent out of a separate $64.7 million state general fund loan that Schwarzenegger received approval for in October, according to California’s deputy finance director H.D. Palmer.

Nelson said the $20 million loan came from the state’s Pooled Money Investment Board and that officials will begin paying that back in the next fiscal year, which begins July 1.

He said it remains unclear what will happen to the $2 million spent from the general fund loan.

Nelson had previously said that San Quentin inmates were in considerable need of new housing but today stood behind Brown’s decision.

“It’s not a question of how we feel about the governor’s decision,” he said.

Verke echoed similar sentiments from CDCR officials.

“We’re supportive,” he said. “The governor has acted to save taxpayers millions of dollars in the coming fiscal year and part of that was cutting this project.”

No plans have been announced for constructing cheaper housing for the San Quentin death row inmates.

Saul Sugarman, Bay City News

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