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June 12, 2009

California could net US$1 billion from San Quentin sale

SAN QUENTIN, California

It’s some of the most prized waterfront land in the country, a large piece of rich and beautiful property sitting right on San Francisco Bay, and the owner has proposed selling it to raise needed cash.

But many of the current residents don’t want to leave, and uprooting them would be costly.

The property in question is San Quentin State Prison, a maximum-security penitentiary where some of the state’s toughest inmates have access to a variety of programs such as tennis and drama, thanks to the many prison volunteers who live in the Bay Area.

“Some places you go for punishment,” said inmate John Taylor, a catcher for the prison baseball team, the San Quentin Giants. “Here, it’s more rehabilitation. I just don’t know why the governor would want to shut us down.”

Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger has proposed selling the 175-hectare prison and several other state-owned properties and using the proceeds to help ease the state’s US$24.3 billion budget deficit.

It is widely assumed that any buyer would be interested primarily in the land. Developers might tear down all or some of the prison to make way for condos or other projects.

Taylor, who is 35 and serving up to life for murder, had done nearly 10 years in three other state prisons before he asked for a transfer to San Quentin two years ago.

The prison is a collection of buildings constructed during the Gold Rush, including some with fanciful, fortress-like touches such as the crenellations normally seen on medieval castles. There are also more modern, square buildings.

Taylor’s duties include fighting weeds in the courtyard.

“This is the first place visitors see when they come in,” he said. “We want it to look good.”

Prison volunteers come from around the Bay Area and include professional artists, graduate students and professors at nearby universities, including the University of California at Berkeley and San Francisco State University. Others are retirees. Most are experienced teachers in their field.

San Quentin has 5,300 inmates and holds California’s death row, a unit that has expanded beyond 600 occupants since a federal judge deemed the cramped gas chamber unacceptable and halted all executions.

The state recently spent more than US$164 million on new medical facilities at the prison and has budgeted US$356 million for a new complex to house condemned inmates.

The land San Quentin occupies — only a 10-minute drive from the Golden Gate bridge — could fetch an estimated US$2 billion even in a down economy. The state could net US$1 billion after construction of a new prison elsewhere.

The California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation has started an analysis of what it would take to sell the property, said spokesman Seth Unger.

Associated Press

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