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Study: California's 12 oldest prisons need major fixes

The $5.4 million Kitchell CEM study is still underway and the consultants haven't estimated the cost to fix all 12 prisons.

SACRAMENTO, Calif. — California's 12 oldest prisons, some dating to the mid-1800s, need major repairs or replacements if they are to continue housing about a third of the state's inmate population, according to a new state-commissioned study made public Tuesday.

"In nearly all cases, the building and site systems evaluated at all 12 studied prisons has exceeded their expected useful life," said the private consultants' initial report, made public in a court filing. "Indeed, most of the systems date to the prisons' original construction."

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They include San Quentin State Prison, built in 1852, and Folsom State Prison, built in 1880. Two other prisons date from the World War II era, and two others were "repurposed from former military housing."

The $5.4 million Kitchell CEM study is still underway and the consultants haven't estimated the cost to fix all 12 prisons. But the projected cost to fix just one prison built in 1955 was estimated at more than $763 million.

"Do the math — 11 other prisons," said Don Specter, director of the nonprofit Prison Law Office that is involved in major lawsuits over inmates' welfare. "Prisons are literally crumbling."

Corrections department spokeswoman Terry Thornton said the department began seeking the study in 2016.

"It's to guide future planning and investment in the department's infrastructure needs," she said.

State budget officials and lawmakers would have to approve any spending.

The report comes as the state is already scrambling to fix deteriorating prison roofs that in some cases have required officials to stop using dining or housing areas. The state committed $260 million over four years to repair leaking roofs at more than two dozen of the state's 35 prisons where the cost of overdue maintenance is estimated at more than $1 billion.

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The consultants generally recommended between seven to 10 large projects at each prison to keep them running, with a priority on inmates' safety and welfare.

"In a few instances, the recommendation is to suspend operations of a particular building until repairs can be made," they warned. But while a majority of prison buildings and other infrastructure are "beyond their useful life," they may still be in operational condition. Completing the recommended repairs and replacements would make it likely the prisons "will continue to operate for the foreseeable future," they said.

Specter said he, too, is concerned that some areas may be uninhabitable.

"Decades of deferred maintenance have led to this. What the state has done is ignore the need to routinely replace some of these critical infrastructure for decades," he said.

The state needs the prisons to stay below a court-ordered population cap, set after prisons grew so crowded more than a decade ago that inmates were sleeping in triple-tiered bunks in gymnasiums and other common areas.

"These prisons have been put through the ringer," Specter said. "Many of them have not only been inhabited past their useful life, but they put thousands more people in them than they were designed for, so that takes its toll as well."

The only fully completed estimate is $763.5 million for the California Medical Facility in Vacaville, southwest of Sacramento. The consultants recommended repairing some buildings but said others, including some housing units, should be replaced.

By contrast, the entire cost for the state's newest prison, another medical facility opened in 2013 in Stockton, was $839 million.

"The price tag is enormous," Specter said. "Three-quarters of a billion dollars just for one prison."

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