State reviews impact of prison projects in Paso Robles

The environmental impacts of a trio of prison projects proposed on state-owned land near the Paso Robles Municipal Airport were discussed at two meetings Wednesday.

The public comment came as additional details were presented about the facilities, which state officials say would add nearly 900 jobs to the area.

Noise, groundwater and impacts to growth and housing were on a long list officials had already planned to study. In addition to traffic and potential impact on local hospitals, the question of whether the projects’ lighting would bother pilots at the city’s airport came up in at least one of the meetings.

The projects include reconfiguring existing buildings at the former El Paso de Robles Youth Correctional Facility for a 1,000-inmate, medium-security prison; and constructing new stand-alone buildings for a 500-inmate re-entry facility and a 200-inmate County/Cal Fire camp. The re-entry facility would operate independently from the prison and camp.

All three projects could be constructed at different times and in no particular order on the same 160-acre parcel at the northwest corner of Airport and Dry Creek roads. The environmental report will take 10 to 12 months to complete, officials said, and then construction could begin two to three years after that, depending on state funding.

Part of the land was formerly used to house young adult offenders until it closed in June 2008. Much of the community knew it as a boys school.

State officials said they felt fortunate to be able to use its buildings to help alleviate severe overcrowding at 33 other state prisons.

Changes to the former boys school include building two 30- to 40-foot-tall observational towers, road improvements and tearing down two buildings to construct an electric perimeter fence. The fence will be between nonelectric fences on either side, officials said.

Ways to shield birds and animals from the fence are being studied. One idea was to remove some trees so as not to attract birds, and build a new habitat at the parcel’s southwestern corner around open space.

The re-entry facility will serve inmates from San Luis Obispo, Santa Barbara and San Benito counties.

Approval of all three counties, along with that of Paso Robles’ leaders, was a precondition for the project. All have agreed to it.

The re-entry facility is a new concept for California and offers prisoners with job and life skills training during their last year of incarceration.

“If you take a 30-year inmate and release him into the community, how would he get an ID without an ID? He might have never touched a computer. When is the last time he would have cooked a meal?” sheriff’s Chief Deputy Rob Reid said. “Think of all the life skills you use every day that he hasn’t used in years.”

Its programs would give such inmates an “exit plan,” he said, by helping them figure out a place to live and make appointments for a driver’s license, for example.

Women’s jail planned

As a result of the three counties’ approving for the re-entry facility, San Luis Obispo County has been awarded about $25 million for a new women’s jail on Kansas Avenue in San Luis Obispo — a project that has been in the works since 2005, Reid said.

Currently, the county’s jail for women has 100 inmates, more than twice its intended capacity of 45, he added. That means inmates sleep on mattresses on the floor at peak times, according to county documents.

The county has been awarded the money, he added, but doesn’t have a check. It will come in increments after the construction bid goes out.

The original project was estimated to cost nearly $40 million, but the $25 million will build the essentials, Reid said.