The Orange County Board of Supervisors is looking to get $80 million from the state to expand the James L. Musick Facility, which sits between Irvine and Lake Forest.
And the county’s plans are making Irvine city leaders livid.
The facility, also known as the "Musick Honor Farm,” is a minimum security jail, and can house about 1,200 inmates.
In the wake of prisoner realignment, which shifted more responsibility for inmates from the state onto local counties, county supervisors have applied for an $80-million state grant to build 384 new "rehabilitation beds."
County Supervisor Todd Spitzer insists the money will help prevent inmates from committing more crimes, while Irvine Councilman Larry Agran is convinced the expansion is a first step towards a mega-jail.
The 100-acre facility lies just east of the Orange County Great Park and a planned neighborhood of at least 5,000 homes.
Agran says he's gravely concerned that county supervisors are now trying to “oversize" the jail.
“What the county is talking about doing now, is not just expanding the Honor Farm but totally transforming this from a minimum security, dormitory-style Honor Farm with an outstanding record, into a mega jail,” said Agran.
Meanwhile, Spitzer – who represents Irvine – says the board is looking to get the state grant for one purpose only: rehabilitating inmates.
“What we have in the State of California today is a 70-percent recidivism rate. In other words these inmates who are coming back to Orange County are committing new crimes 70-percent of the time and going back to state prison,” said Spitzer.
“So we are applying for – and we don't know if we'll get the grant – but we're applying for this money to be able to add 384 jail beds at Musick for level-one and level-two offenders who, before they return to the community in Orange County, get the skills – the social skills, the economic skills, the educational skills – to do everything they can not to return to state prison.”
But Agran says he's convinced the county will eventually turn Musick into something that resembles a state prison.
The councilman says he's concerned because the county's environmental impact report calls for Musick to potentially expand to 7,500 inmates.
And Agran claims the county is only interested in a money-making scheme off the inmates – without regard for local communities.
“They are willing to import inmates from outside Orange County – from other counties – of course take them from the state, and also take them from federal authorities who are handling potential deportees,” said Agran. “All of that will be part of a rent-a-jail, rent-a-cell system that is intended to generate tens of millions of dollars to the county.”
Spitzer says that’s simply not true.
“That notion that Musick jail is going to turn into a state prison, in my opinion, is ludicrous,” he said, adding that he has a history of not wanting to max-out the jail.
And under his watch, Spitzer says, that will never happen.
“When I became a supervisor the first time in 1996, I was unequivocally against expanding Musick Jail to 7,500 beds. And in fact, I voted against that [environmental report] and I've never been supportive,” said Spitzer.
“I'm doing everything I can to keep it consistent with what it has always been – an Honor Farm” he added. “But the complexity of jails – the fact that the Central Men's Jail in Santa Ana, the Theo Lacy Jail in Orange is built to capacity – there are going to be other places in the county and Musick is one of those places where we're going to have to look for other opportunities.”
Agran calls it a “terrible decision.”
“The county supervisors very willingly are taking this up and they're wanting to turn it into a profit,” said Agran.
Spitzer, again, says that’s false.
“Take these individuals who have led a life of crime and give them the life skills to try to turn them around to be productive citizens – or at a minimum, not commit new crimes and hurt our society and return to state prison,” said Spitzer.
Spitzer adds that he’s not in favor of early release, underscoring that the proposed beds at Musick will prevent the early release of inmates who could be put back on the streets of Orange County only to re-offend.
"I will not jeopardize the public's safety by playing politics,” said Spitzer.
This story was adapted for print by Nick Gerda.