California to remake San Quentin jail, new deal with rehabilitation

Two guards walk towards the entrance of San Quentin State Prison during a media tour of California’s Death Row in San Quentin, California December 29, 2015. REUTERS/Stephen Lam

SACRAMENTO, Calif. (AP) – The infamous San Francisco Bay State Penitentiary, which has housed the largest death row population in the United States, is being converted into a prison where less dangerous prisoners receive education, training and rehabilitation under a new plan of the California Governor Gavin Newsom.

The Democratic governor will discuss his proposed remodeling of San Quentin State Penitentiary during a visit Friday.

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The facility will be renamed the San Quentin Rehabilitation Center and the inmates serving their sentences there will be relocated to another location in the California correctional system. The state has 668 prisoners facing the death penalty, almost all male, and about 100 have already been transferred, state prison officials said.

“Today we are taking the next step in our quest for true rehabilitation, justice and safer communities through this proven secured investment, creating a new model for safety and justice — the California model — that will lead the nation,” Newsom said in a statement on Thursday the coming changes.

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

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

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

Newsom’s office cited Norway’s approach to incarceration, which focuses on preparing people to return to society, as inspiration for the program. Oregon and North Dakota have also drawn inspiration from the Scandinavian country’s politics.

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In Norwegian maximum-security prisons, cells often look more like dormitories with additional furniture like chairs, desks and even televisions, and prisoners have access to kitchens and activities like basketball. The country has a low recidivism rate.

In the renovated San Quentin, job training programs would prepare people to get high-paying jobs as plumbers, electricians or truck drivers after they’re released, Newsom told the Los Angeles Times.

A group of public safety experts, crime victims and ex-prisoners will advise the state on the transformation. Newsom is committing $20 million to launch the plan.

Republican Assembly Member Tom Lackey criticized Newsom’s criminal justice system priorities and said the governor and Democratic lawmakers should spend more time focusing their efforts on assisting crime victims.

“Communities win when we make rehabilitation efforts, but what about the victims?” said Lakai. “Have we rehabilitated her?”

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

“Longer term, I think we want to prevent people from going to jail in the first place, which means we want to provide more opportunities for high-paying jobs in the community,” she said.

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California voters upheld the death penalty in 2016 and voted to speed up executions. Newsom’s decision to stop her in one of his first major acts as governor was quickly dismissed by critics, including prosecutors who said he was ignoring voters.

But Californians have also backed the relaxation of certain criminal sanctions to reduce mass incarceration as part of a more recent move away from the hard-crime policies once dominant in the state.

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

Among other things, San Quentin is home to Mount Tamalpais College, the country’s first accredited junior college to be entirely behind bars. The school offers inmates courses in literature, astronomy, US government, and others to earn an Associate of Arts degree.

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

The prison also operates a newspaper called the San Quentin News, and several inmates recorded and produced the hugely popular podcast Ear Hustle while in prison.

Newsom’s announcement came during a four-day political tour of California, rather than a traditional address to the state.

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