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San Quentin Prison Sale? Inmates Say They Want To Stay

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SAN QUENTIN, Calif. — 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 432-acre prison and several other state-owned properties and using the proceeds to help ease the state's $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 currently 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 $164 million on new medical facilities at the prison and has budgeted $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 $2 billion even in a down economy. The state could net $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.

Previous legislative efforts to close the prison and sell its land have all stalled, largely because doing so would lead to more prison overcrowding while a new facility was being built. The politically powerful prison guard union has also lobbied against the idea.

Jared Huffman, a state Assembly Democrat from San Rafael, the city closest to the prison, has proposed converting the 40- to 50-acre parcel reserved for the new death row into a "transit village" with a deep water ferry terminal.

"This is a simple plan for San Quentin that's very doable for that part of the property," Huffman said.

But inside the walls of San Quentin, talk of a sale is seen as a threat to the prison programming that depends on volunteers.

The programs include a Shakespearean drama program, football, baseball, basketball, soccer and tennis teams, and the Prison University Project, which offers inmates classroom instruction that leads to associate's degrees.

Should San Quentin close, the university project would certainly shut down.

"We would probably try to reconstitute it at another prison, but it would take a long time," said Jody Lewen, the program's founder and executive director.

San Quentin is no summer camp. Inmates live two to a 4-by-9-foot cell.

The intake center, with 2,700 inmates, has spilled over into a gym, where 300 inmates await their assignments to other prisons. And there are prison gangs, too.

Still, during one recent visit, the tennis team was practicing. And inmates with clear natural talent worked in a studio on art projects commissioned by the prison.

"The prison is unique," said Vinny Nguyen, 31, who is serving 25 years to life for murder. "We're surrounded by a lot of universities, and we get a lot of help and contact from the outside. It makes us want to be positive. That would all be destroyed along with San Quentin."

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