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Federal budget issues delay opening of new Central Valley prison

WASHINGTON -- Budget disarray on Capitol Hill means further delays for a federal prison in rural Mendota, Calif.

The main medium-security facility on the San Joaquin Valley's west side is constructed but still at least six months away from accepting inmates, federal Bureau of Prisons officials say. Congress holds the key.

"We can not move forward with Mendota until we receive funding," Bureau of Prisons spokesperson Traci Billingsley noted Wednesday.

Last summer, the Bureau of Prisons publicly anticipated opening the facility formally known as Federal Correctional Institution Mendota in "early" 2011. Long delayed, the prison is supposed to eventually hold approximately 1,152 inmates.

The 960-acre facility also includes a 128-bed minimum security camp whose construction "will be completed next month, barring any unforeseen delays," Billingsley said.

But though progress has been made, including the hiring last year of Warden Paul Copenhaver, from a federal prison in Dublin, Calif., some things remain beyond the prison agency's control.

In particular, Congress has failed under both Democratic control last year and Republican control this year to approve a Fiscal 2011 budget. On Tuesday, the GOP-controlled House passed the latest in a series of temporary funding measures. The latest will string along the federal government for another three weeks.Consequently, most federal agencies including the Bureau of Prisons must get by on the lower funding levels provided for 2010.

This specifically hinders the Mendota project, because the Bureau of Prisons needs additional money set aside for "activating," or opening, the facility. This includes furnishing the prison and hiring and training approximately 350 staff members.

"The (agency) is presently operatingwith only limited temporary funding," Billingsley noted.

When it's able to hire, the Bureau of Prisons is offering a 17 percent signing bonus for workers at both the Mendota and the existing U.S. Penitentiary Atwater, a high-security facility that opened in 2001.

Rep. Jim Costa, D-Fresno, called the funding shortfall a "temporary setback" that he may soon be alleviated."I am hopeful that the House and Senate will work through our differences and pass a long-term spending bill to fund the government’s many priorities, including moving forward with full activation of the Mendota prison," Costa stated Wednesday.

Even so, Billingsley noted the Bureau of Prisons will need about six months to complete the prison activation once the required additional funding is provided.

Only about six months remain in Fiscal 2011, which concludes Sept. 30. The congressional failure to complete its appropriations work stems, in part, from disagreements over conservative lawmakers' push to cut federal spending.

Initial GOP budget-cutting plans, pushed in February, included reductions in FBI, U.S. Marshals Service and Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms construction spending, but did not directly target prison programs.

Those initial plans later stalled in the Senate, forcing lawmakers to try taking smaller bites from the federal budget.

Construction began on the $250 million Mendota prison complex in February 2005, following a several-year delay. Officials at the time anticipated completion by 2008. That timeline started slipping when federal funding stalled.