California to rebuild San Quentin prison, emphasizing rehabilitation

The notorious San Francisco Bay Area State Prison, home to the largest death row inmate in the United States, will be turned into a lockup where less dangerous inmates will receive education, training and rehabilitation under a new plan by California Gov. Gavin Newsom. .

The Democratic governor will discuss the proposed transformation of San Quentin State Prison during a visit on Friday.

The facility will be renamed the San Quentin Correctional Center, and inmates serving prison terms there will be transferred elsewhere in the California prison system. The state has 668 inmates facing death sentences, almost all men, and about 100 have already been moved, state prison officials said.

“Today, we are taking the next step in our pursuit of true restoration, justice and safer communities through this investment that is documented, creating a new model of safety and justice — the California model — that will lead the nation,” Newsom said in the statement on Thursday for the upcoming changes.

The move by Newsom, who recently began his second term, follows a 2019 moratorium on executions and dismantling the prison’s gas chamber, as well as his announcement in 2022 that some inmates would be transferred from San Quentin to other prisons.

Full details of the plan were not immediately released, though officials said the facility would focus on “education, rehabilitation and breaking the cycle of crime.”

San Quentin, California’s oldest prison, has housed high-profile criminals such as cult leader Charles Manson, convicted murderers and serial killers, and was the site of violent riots in the 1960s and 1970s. But it was also the site of some of the nation’s most innovative inmate programs.

Newsom’s office cited Norway’s approach to incarceration, which focuses on preparing people to return to society, as an inspiration for the program. Oregon and North Dakota have also been inspired by the Nordic country’s policies.

In Norway’s maximum security prisons, cells are often more like dormitories with additional furniture such as chairs, desks and even televisions, while inmates have access to a kitchen and activities such as basketball. The nation has a low recidivism rate.

At the renovated San Quentin, job training programs would lead people to well-paying jobs as plumbers, electricians or truck drivers after their release, Newsom told the Los Angeles Times.

A team made up of public safety experts, crime victims and former inmates will advise the state on the transformation. Newsom has $20 million available to start the plan.

Republican Rep. Tom Lackey criticized Newsom’s criminal justice priorities, saying the governor and state Democratic lawmakers should spend more time focusing their efforts on supporting crime victims.

“Communities win when we do recovery efforts, but what about the victims?” Lackey said. “Have we restored them?”

Meanwhile, Taina Vargas, executive director of Initiate Justice Action, a Los Angeles-based advocacy group, said she’s pleased the state is moving toward rehabilitation for incarcerated people, but more drastic changes are needed to transform the criminal justice system that imprisons so many people.

“In the long run, I think we want to prevent people from going to prison, which means we want to provide more opportunities for high-paying jobs in the community,” he said.

California voters ratified the death penalty in 2016 and voted to speed up executions. Newsom’s decision to stop them in one of his first major acts as governor drew a swift backlash from critics, including district attorneys, who said he was ignoring voters.

But Californians have also supported loosening some criminal penalties in an effort to reduce mass incarceration as part of a more recent movement away from the tough-on-crime policies that once dominated the state.

San Quentin north of San Francisco is also home to some of the most innovative inmate programs in the country, reflecting the Bay Area’s politically liberal beliefs.

Among other such programs, San Quentin houses Mount Tamalpais College, the first accredited junior college in the country based entirely behind bars. The school offers inmates courses in literature, astronomy, US government and more to earn an Associate of Arts degree.

The college’s $5 million annual budget is funded by private donations with volunteer faculty from top nearby universities such as Stanford and the University of California, Berkeley.

The prison also has a newspaper called the San Quentin News, and several inmates recorded and produced the wildly popular podcast “Ear Hustle” while serving time.

Newsom’s announcement came during a four-day policy tour across California instead of a traditional State of the State address.


Sophie Austin is a member of the Associated Press/Report for America Statehouse News Initiative corps. Report for America is a nonprofit national service program that places reporters in local newsrooms to report on undercover issues. Follow Austin on Twitter: @sophieadanna

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