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The hulking shape of San Quentin is not quite visible from the heights of the University of California campus on the other side of San Francisco Bay. But the prison has begun to loom ominously in the minds of professors and students here as they have come to believe that California's binge of prison building is being financed at the expense of the state's proud public university system.

This year, for the first time, California will spend more on prisons than for its two university systems, the University of California and the California state universities, according to Geoffrey Long, the chief consultant to the state Assembly's Budget Committee.It is the culmination of a trend that has seen spending on prisons climb to 9.9 percent of the budget this year, from 2 percent in 1980, while spending on higher education has shrunk to 9.5 percent from 12.6 percent in 1980.

In the last 15 years, the number of inmates in California prisons has increased from 23,511 to 126,140, and the state has built 17 new prisons, the largest prison construction program in the nation's history, said Franklin Zimring, director of the Earl Warren Legal Institute at Berkeley.

With California's tough new "three strikes and you're out" law beginning to take effect, spending on prisons is expected to increase even more rapidly. The state estimates that with the three-strikes law it will need 15 more prisons by the year 2000, at a cost of $4.5 billion, just to stay at the current 182 percent of capacity, said Craig Brown, the under secretary of the Youth and Adult Correctional Agency.

A Rand Corp. study has projected that if the three-strikes law is fully implemented, by the year 2002 the Department of Corrections will consume 18 percent of the state budget, with only 1 percent left for universities. The new law mandates a prison sentence of 25 years to life for third-time offenders.

A spokesman for Gov. Pete Wilson, an ardent supporter of prison construction and the three-strikes law, blamed California's economic slump, which has lowered state revenue, for the drop in spending on higher education.

But the spokesman, Paul Kran-hold, said that within budgetary limits "the governor makes no apologies for making public safety a top priority."

The clash between spending for prisons and education is taking place in many states around the country.

"Higher education is the prime cash cow for state budgets," said Steven D. Gold, director of the Center for the Study of the States, an Albany-based research arm of the State University of New York that studies state programs and finances. "There are few patterns that are universal, but this comes as close to being universal as any in the 1990s."

In a survey of spending from 1990 to 1993 in six states, including California, Gold found the same "shift in resources, from the loser, higher education, to the winner, corrections."

The other states were Connecticut, Florida, Massachusetts, Michigan and Minnesota. The results are to be published this month in "The Fiscal Crisis of the States" (Georgetown University Press).

Under Gov. George Pataki's proposed new budget for New York, spending for higher education will be cut; spending for prisons is the only part of the budget that is being spared, Gold said.

"The governors are making a choice," Gold said. "They think that's what the public wants. But the public doesn't understand the fiscal price tag that is hidden," which is less higher education and, ultimately, a less highly trained work force.

Public universities are a particularly convenient target, he said, because "if you substitute tuition increases for state tax dollars, it cushions the blow."

Malcolm Feeley, a professor of law and associate dean of the Boalt Hall School of Law at Berkeley, called the tradeoff shortsighted. "Silicon Valley and California's big defense industry didn't just happen because of the warm weath-er," he said. "They were supported by a world-class public education system that was practically free."