Musick proposal unveiled
Adding 2,000 beds and modernizing the 'mega-jail' is expected to cost $250 million.
By PEGGY LOWE and KIMBERLY EDDS
The Orange County Register
Plans are under way for the James A. Musick jail to undergo a $250 million first-step expansion to add 2,000 inmate beds and streamline many of the Orange County jail's operations.
Sheriff Mike Carona announced the proposal Thursday, which essentially kicks off the bidding process for companies who want to design the expansion. Making Musick larger has been planned for years but was held up because of opposition from the cities of Irvine and Lake Forest.
Construction is years away and so far unfunded. The proposal is also being put in place because of the possibility of a statewide bond issue to raise money for jails in 2008.
"If we can get some of this planning done now we can be in the position of going after some of that money," said Supervisor Bill Campbell.
Carona has agreements for the expansion from nearby cities. But Irvine Mayor Beth Krom said she will need more information from the sheriff, as the issue has always been troubling to her city.
"I am looking forward to getting as much accurate information as possible but I am very concerned about a major jail expansion at the edge of the Great Park," Krom said.
Musick sits on 100 acres of unincorporated land about 700 feet from Lake Forest homes and about a mile from Irvine businesses.
The plan is being put in place in hopes of easing the chronic conditions in Orange County's jails, which are the most crowded in California, according to state and federal ratings. The county's system is considered a "mega-jail," a huge local jail that is the second-largest in California and the 11th-largest in the U.S.
Musick, known informally as "The Farm" because inmates harvest fruit and vegetables there, now houses 1,256 inmates. Carona has won state and federal courts' approval for ultimately placing 7,500 beds there, but is planning to gradually expand the facility to only 4,400.
Carona has begun selecting and hiring an architectural firm to work on the master plan for the site, which will be designed to fit into the character of the surrounding industrial buildings, according to a sheriff's statement. It will be made more secure, since it will be upgraded to a medium-security facility, he said.
During the first phase of construction, which could take up to seven years, 1,000 beds now housed in decades-old temporary wooden dormitories and tents will be replaced with new buildings, said Rick Dostal, director of finance and administration for the sheriff's department.
An additional 1,000 beds and several administrative buildings would also be added during the first phase, which will cost about $250 million, Dostal said.
The sheriff's overall plan to increase the number of beds to 4,400 could cost $750 million, Dostal said.
CONTACT US: Register staff writer Sonya Smith contributed to this report. 714-285-2862 or email@example.com
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The sheriff will seek an architect to more than triple the number of beds at the Musick facility. The effort raises concern in nearby Irvine.
By Christian Berthelsen
Times Staff Writer
December 2, 2006
Orange County Sheriff Michael S. Carona has pushed forward with plans for an Irvine jail expansion that would ultimately more than triple the number of inmates at the facility, a project that has drawn fierce opposition from neighboring cities, despite the need to alleviate overcrowding.
It remains unclear how the $250-million project would be funded since the county has not budgeted funds for construction. Bill Campbell, chairman of the county Board of Supervisors, said there was talk in Sacramento of a prison construction bond being placed on the 2008 ballot, but if that does not happen the county could issue its own bonds or lease the facility from the builder, among other options.
In an announcement this week, Carona said the department was beginning the process of hiring an architect. The hiring and initial plans are expected to take a year, and the county has budgeted $2.3 million for the effort.
Should the construction funding come through, the first phase of development is expected to be completed in five to seven years. Much of the initial work would focus on replacing the mobile wooden dormitories and tents which, when erected in the 1980s, were intended to be temporary.
The move follows repeated criticism from the grand jury that the Orange County jail system has a shortage of beds. Until last year, the county was under a federal court order to reduce overcrowding. The county housed an average of 1,600 more inmates per day than its jail system was designed to hold, according to a June grand jury report that faulted county officials for poor planning.
The county has been trying to expand the James A. Musick Branch Jail for at least a decade. But the proposal has been a contentious one, particularly in Lake Forest, where homes sit 700 feet from the site, and in Irvine. The jail would abut the Great Park, where Irvine plans to transform the former El Toro air base into a 1,350-acre recreational haven with a golf course, a botanical garden, a lake, hot-air balloons and a museum.
The two cities once sued the county to stop jail expansion plans. The original proposal called for 7,500 beds at the facility, housing minimum-, medium- and maximum-security prisoners. Under a compromise with Lake Forest, the county reduced the proposal to 4,400 beds, with no maximum-security prisoners, the proposal Carona is moving forward with.
The jail currently has 1,256 beds.
Irvine rejected the compromise and an appeals court upheld the county plan. The city subsequently flirted with the idea of annexing the land around Musick into the Great Park to prevent further expansion but backed off.
On Friday, Irvine Mayor Beth Krom said that the Sheriff's Department had not approached Irvine officials to discuss the renewed effort and that she was concerned about the proposal.
"We haven't even had the courtesy of a communication from the Sheriff's Department about this plan," she said.
The Sheriff's Department said no officials were available Friday to discuss the proposal further.
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Here we go again with the NIMBY factor: Not in my backyard. This time, though, the NIMBY target, the overcrowded James A. Musick Branch Jail, is already in Irvine’s backyard and in Lake Forest’s, too. Both cities are viewing with some alarm Orange County Sheriff Mike Carona’s plan for a $250 million expansion of the minimum security facility, which would then house both minimum and medium-security prisoners. And that would be only the first phase of the addition, according to Sheriff’s Dept. spokesman Rick Dostal. Even more bucks will be needed, he noted.
Such talk is not going over well with adjoining residents, who are not overjoyed with the lockup now, much less looking forward to a bigger operation that Carona says will triple the number of inmates.
Mayor Beth Krom told me she already has heard from some of them, who view the county’s announcement as a bitter pill. “There are some issues in this matter that are not being addressed,” Krom went on. The mayor said she’s pretty much in the dark about the expansion, noting, “They have not provided us with details.”
There may be no reason yet for nearby homeowners to put their properties on the market since the county has no money for the project, hoping the state will launch a bond issue to pay for it. Still, Carona is planning to hire an architect to develop preliminary blueprints, but construction is several yeas away.
It’s ironic that some U.S. towns beg for new jails to boost their faltering economy while other communities strive to keep them out. The difference, of course, is that affluent cities like Irvine can get along very well without prisons, thank you. Still, one could argue that building more cells cuts down on forced early releases, which put more bad guys on the street.
I can hear someone now saying “That’s easy enough for you to say, Stein. You don’t have to live near a prison.” True enough. Hemmed in as our neighborhood is by a freeway, high school, shopping centers and other housing developments, there isn’t room for a horse stable much less a penitentiary housing 1,256 inmates.
Nevertheless, I can empathize with the residents near the Great Park site, which abuts Musick. Some years ago, my wife and I bought a new home in Palo Alto, about 100 yards from a railroad line. We saw the tracks during our walk-through of the house but, unfortunately, did not linger long enough to hear the trains go by. Within two weeks, we were sleepless and half-crazed by their noise.
We went to the builder’s office in town, told one his reps we were going loony and wanted out the deal, probably giving him the best laugh he had had all month. The meeting wound up with him figuratively patting us on the head and assuring us we would get used to the “annoyance” as other buyers had. He was right. A month later, we were not aware of the trains, even with the patio door open. We simply didn’t hear them anymore.
Of course, a railway does not pose the same problem as a prison, but I’m almost sure most homeowners near Musick have learned to live with it. On the other hand, a project that would add 2,000 more prisoners is nothing for them to cheer about, whatever the public benefit.
Stein can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org.