By Katy St Clair
Bay City News
Gov. Gavin Newsom on Friday unveiled his plan to transform the San Quentin State Penitentiary into a facility where services and support are more important than punishment, naming the new model the San Quentin Rehabilitation Center.
The governor met with former and current prison staff and inmates, elected officials and advocates of criminal justice reform on Friday for a press conference at the prison announcing the project, which some are calling a Scandinavian approach to incarceration.
“I don’t call it a Scandinavian model,” Newsom said on Friday when asked about the comparison. “This is the California model. The California way, informed by best practices around the world.”
Newsom said he hopes to make San Quentin “the world’s pre-eminent institution for restorative justice.”
Under the new plan, San Quentin would hold only about 2,000 inmates who are serving lighter sentences, and transfer more than 500 inmates who have to spend more time on larger crimes, including those on death row, to other facilities.
The transition would happen by 2025, Newsom said, and he has pledged $20 million for it.
The so-called Scandinavian model emphasizes education, training and rehabilitation over punishment, with the idea that people should leave prison no worse than they came in. Newsom said some approaches have already begun in smaller prisons across the state, but this one would be the largest scale.
In San Quentin, the new model allows prisoners to learn lucrative trades to improve their chances of making it when they get out. Inmates can become plumbers, electricians or truck drivers.
Currently, San Quentin already has its own college program, an award-winning inmate-produced newspaper, and several other opportunities for enrichment.
State Senator Mike McGuire, D-Healdsburg, also shared his support for the new direction.
“We have put politics ahead of smart politics when it comes to our criminal justice system,” he said. “Newsom’s action today is not just about reform. It’s about changing lives. It’s about ending the prison pipeline that has impacted California’s communities of color. It’s about creating a path for whole families and a stronger future for this state. And it’s about saving taxpayers’ money.”
At the heart of the need for a new approach, both McGuire and the governor said, is the state’s 70 percent recidivism rate. And while he said his office was merely looking at global models of reform and would create its own model, he cited Norway’s 20 percent recidivism rate as an argument for restorative justice over simply emplacement of people.
When asked what challenges he faces in implementing the new model, Newsom jokingly replied.
“Fires, droughts, social unrest, pandemics?” he joked, adding, “Ron Desantis?”
Then he got serious.
“Interested people find excuses. Committed people find ways to get things done,” he said.
Assemblyman Phil Ting, D-San Francisco/San Mateo, spoke at the press conference in support of the program.
“For a couple of decades, we had the idea that we could be safer as a state,” he said. “If we took our inmates to the most remote parts of the state, if we could just send them out, separate them from their communities, separate them from us, separate them from their loved ones and family members, we’d be safer somehow.
“Actually, I think the exact opposite is needed,” Ting said.
San Quentin, located on prime Marin real estate overlooking the bay, is California’s oldest prison and was once home to the country’s largest death row prison. It currently houses about 3,300 inmates.
In 2019, Newsom imposed a moratorium on executions in the state and ordered the death chamber in San Quentin to be dismantled.
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