California will redo San Quentin prison, emphasizing rehabilitation

SAN QUENTIN, Calif. (AP) — Visiting San Quentin, California’s oldest prison and once home to a gas chamber used to execute inmates on the nation’s largest death row, Gov. Gavin Newsom touted on Friday a plan to refurbish the facility in favor of a rehabilitation-focused approach that could become a model for the world.

The facility will be renamed the San Quentin Rehabilitation Center, and the more than 500 inmates serving death sentences will be relocated elsewhere in the California correctional system. The prison houses more than 2,000 other inmates with lesser sentences.

“We want to be the premier restorative justice facility in the world — that’s the goal,” Newsom said from an on-site warehouse that will house his envisioned programs. “San Quentin is iconic, San Quentin is known around the world. If San Quentin can do it, it can be done anywhere.”

Despite Newsom’s ambitious tone, he offered few concrete details about what the new system would look like and who it would serve. It wasn’t clear how far the plan would go to reinvent a prison once home to California’s most notorious criminals, such as Charles Manson, and site of violent riots in the 1960s and 1970s.

But it has also become known for innovative programs where inmates can get a college degree, write for an award-winning journal, study art, and get job training in preparation for reentry into society.

A panel of public safety experts, crime victims and ex-offenders will advise the state on the transformation, which Newsom hopes to complete by 2025. It is committing $20 million to launch the plan.

Newsom’s move, who recently began his second term, follows his 2019 moratorium on executions, which sparked criticism from some who said he was overlooking the wishes of voters who upheld the death penalty in 2016 urns.

From 2020 to 2022, more than 100 death row inmates were transferred from San Quentin to other prisons under a state-run pilot program. The state spends about $326 million annually running San Quentin, and Newsom’s administration did not say whether the new approach would save money.

The latest plan is part of a decade-long transformation of the state’s sprawling prison system, which went into federal receivership in 2005 after a court ruled that prison medical care was so lacking that it amounted to cruel and unusual punishment. A jury later ordered the state to drastically reduce the prison population due to overcrowding.

About 800 people are released from San Quentin each year, and the goal is to prevent them from committing another crime and ending up back in the system, Newsom said.

San Quentin inmate Juan Moreno Haines said the plan will help ensure taxpayer money is spent to end the ongoing cycle of repeat crime.

“I’ll ask Californians: what do you want?” he said. “Do you want them to come out of prison better rehabilitated, or do you want them to come out worse than they were to continuously feed this model of crime?”

Newsom’s office cited Norway’s approach to incarceration, which focuses on preparing people to return to society, as a model. In 2019, officials from the state’s Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation visited Norwegian prisons, where they noted the positive interactions between inmates and staff. Oregon and North Dakota also drew inspiration from the Scandinavian country’s policies.

In Norwegian maximum-security prisons, cells often feel more like dormitories with additional furniture such as chairs, desks, even televisions, and inmates have access to kitchens. Norway has a low reoffending rate after getting out of prison.

As of 2015, two-thirds of people convicted of felonies in California were rearrested within two years of release, according to a study by the Public Policy Institute of California. Newsom said efforts to reduce that rate would increase public safety.

Success will be determined “on the basis of people’s willingness and commitment to change themselves, to change their attitudes and to become positive contributing citizens when they return to the community. We need to help support people along this journey,” she said.

The Prison Law Office, a public interest law firm that filed the lawsuit in 2001 over medical care in California prisons, has advocated a similar approach to prisons and has conducted tours of European prison facilities for US lawmakers. During a 2011 trip to prisons in Germany and the Netherlands, Donald Specter, the law firm’s executive director, said he was shocked to see they were “much more humane” than prisons at home.

“While I was there, I was like, ‘oh my god, we should try to import this philosophy into the United States,'” she said.

Critics of Newsom’s announcement said it follows the continuing priority of people who have committed crimes over victims.

“We are in a climate where it is all about the offenders and criminals and not the innocent victims who have been victimised, traumatized, harmed – family members who are devastated to live without their loved ones because they were murdered and taken away too soon said Patricia Wenskunas, managing director of the Crime Survivors Resource Center.

But Amber-Rose Howard, executive director of Californians United for a Responsible Budget, a group focused on reducing prison populations, isn’t convinced a “Norwegian model” would work in the United States since the two countries have very different histories.

“Newsom should stay on track with closing more prisons, with the implementation of policies that have been passed that would reduce incarceration and bring people home,” he said.

Speakers who joined Newsom said they hoped to build on a number of already successful programs in place at San Quentin. The prison is home to the country’s first accredited junior college entirely behind bars, offering courses in U.S. literature, astronomy, and government. Prisoners recorded and produced the wildly popular “Ear Hustle” podcast while serving their sentences.

Phil Melendez, a former inmate in San Quentin who now works at the advocacy group Smart Justice California, said the rehabilitation programs the state hopes to expand will prepare formerly incarcerated people for success when they reenter society.

“Over the course of (my) time here, I have found a new sense of hope,” Melendez said in prison. “I have found healing.”


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

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