California Proposes Selling San Quentin Prison

Cash-strapped California is looking at ways to raise money. One of them involves selling prime, state-owned real estate — places like the Los Angeles coliseum and the Cow Palace near San Francisco. But among the long list, one property stands out: San Quentin State Prison.

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When you're strapped for cash in a market like this one and you own prime real estate, sometimes you've got to think about selling. And that's what the state of California is considering with properties like the Los Angeles Coliseum and the Cow Palace near San Francisco and another well-known spot. NPR's Richard Gonzales reports.

RICHARD GONZALES: The gates of San Quentin State Prison open up to stunning panoramic views of the San Francisco Bay. It's a real estate developer's dream, except for, of course, the prison that houses more than 5,000 inmates.

Assemblyman JARED HUFFMAN (Democrat, San Rafael, California): I think people of all political persuasions look at this massive prison complex right on the water and this world class property on San Francisco Bay and scratch their heads and think, wow, what a crazy place for a prison.

GONZALES: State assemblyman Jared Huffman says back in the days of the Gold Rush, this quiet peninsula was an ideal spot to house prisoners, but 150 years later Huffman thinks there's a better way to use this prime location that some say is worth a billion dollars.

Assemblyman HUFFMAN: So I think there's a pretty broad acceptance that there are higher and better uses for this property.

GONZALES: Right now besides housing thousands of inmates, San Quentin is also home to California's death row. Selling the prison would mean finding a new spot for the death chamber and no community is clamoring for it. Plus, the state would have to build another prison, and that costs money California doesn't have.

Huffman thinks a better option is to put San Quentin's expansion on hold and use the adjacent land for a ferry terminal to accommodate traffic across the bay. And with that in place, he says, housing will come.

Assemblyman HUFFMAN: It's about a piece of property that could serve the interests of the tax payers, the state of California, and the residents of the entire Bay Area for some pretty darn important uses that have nothing to do with luxury homes or helping someone have a better view.

GONZALES: And there's another source of opposition to San Quentin's closure within the prison's walls.

Ms. JODY LEWEN (Prison University Project): Next door we have English 99B, which is a college prep class. And we also have Ethical Philosophy upstairs, which is a college program as well. Oh, and there's also Basic Literacy.

GONZALES: Jody Lewen is executive director of the Prison University Project, which helps inmates earn a GED or a junior college degree. It's financed and operated entirely by volunteers and it's the only program of its kind in California prisons.

Ms. LEWEN: To me the most significant thing about San Quentin's location is that it's in the middle of a metropolitan area. It's surrounded by colleges and universities. The population of the Bay Area is extremely progressive and politically minded. And it's really an ideal location to run an institution where the community is actively involved in the prison itself.

GONZALES: But Marin County supervisor Steve Kinsey, who favors developing the San Quentin site, sees the prison as a symbol of the state's inability to deal with its problems.

Mr. STEVE KINSEY (Marin County Supervisor): A century is at risk here for the entire Bay Area. The kind of land use future we need to create to be viable and prosperous depends on not wasting these precious sites.

GONZALES: The debate over the future of San Quentin has lasted better than a decade, and no ones is betting that it will be over soon, even with Governor Schwarzenegger's proposal to sell the land. As Kinsey puts it, I haven't taken the champagne out of the cooler.

Richard Gonzales, NPR News, San Francisco.

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