Mendota federal prison on track to open 'early next year'

WASHINGTON -- The long-awaited federal prison in Mendota now has an award-winning warden, a growing staff and an opening date that's coming within sight.

After a stop-and-start history, the medium-security facility in western Fresno County is on track to open "early next year," Bureau of Prisons spokeswoman Felicia Ponce said Thursday.

For approximately 1,152 inmates, Federal Correctional Institution Mendota will be a new home. For those willing to work inside prison walls, including newly named Warden Paul Copenhaver, the 960-acre facility will present fresh opportunities.

"The activation process has begun, which includes the hiring and training of staff and the purchasing of equipment and supplies," Ponce said.

The Bureau of Prisons anticipates needing approximately 360 staffers for FCI Mendota, ranging from correctional officers and physician assistants to secretaries and laundry plant managers.

Some have been appointed, including Copenhaver. Until recently, Copenhaver was warden of Federal Correctional Institution Dublin. The Dublin facility is a low-security prison for women.

Last year, Copenhaver won the attorney general's Award for Excellence from the Justice Department. Officials cited his "high expectations of staff and inmates" as well as his ability to cut overtime costs by one-third.

To lure additional career workers, the bureau has been offering relocation bonuses amounting to 17 percent of annual salary.

Still other Mendota staffers have yet to be hired. Web sites serving career correctional officers are buzzing with questions about the new Mendota prison, while the Bureau of Prisons has been posting online job notices and inducements.

"A federal prison is much like a small city surrounded by the security of a fence," the Bureau of Prison states in one online job recruitment pitch.

Ponce added that "we an- ticipate inmates beginning to arrive early next year," although a specific opening date has not yet been established.

"Inmates typically arrive in slow, steady increments over an extended period of time until a facility is nearly full," Ponce explained.

At the Fresno Regional Workforce Investment Board, marketing and communications director Janis Parker said a number of potential Mendota prison employees have expressed in- terest.

Interest anticipated

Once the prison announces a firm starting date, the Workforce Investment Board will help screen and evaluate potential workers.

"The San Joaquin Valley has double-digit unemployment, and I'm sure there will be a lot of people interested in those positions," Parker said.

Federal correctional officers typically start at salaries of $36,500 to $48,000 a year.

Completed at a cost of roughly $250 million, the Mendota prison grew more expensive than original estimates in part because of construction interruptions. In addition to the main medium- security facility, construction of an adjacent minimum security camp holding about 130 inmates is expected to be completed by April, Ponce said.

Work on the prison began in February 2005, but the scheduled 2008 completion date fell by the wayside when funding temporarily dried up. As late as March 2010, Rep. Jim Costa, D-Fresno, had to request help from fellow lawmakers in securing the funding necessary to open the Mendota prison.

Last week, Costa noted, San Joaquin Valley officials were "impressed" by what they saw when they were brought in for a tour of the facility.

Bee Washington Bureau reporter Michael Doyle can be reached at or 202-383-0006.