California will remake San Quentin prison, emphasizing rehab

SAN QUENTIN, Calif. (AP) — The infamous state prison on San Francisco Bay that has been home to the largest death row population in the United States will be transformed into a lockup where less-dangerous prisoners will receive education, training and rehabilitation, under a new plan from California Gov. Gavin Newsom.

The facility will be renamed the San Quentin Rehabilitation Center and the more than 500 inmates serving prison sentences there will be moved elsewhere in the California penitentiary system. The prison houses about 2,000 other inmates on lesser sentences.

“We want to be the preeminent restorative justice facility in the world — that’s the goal,” Newsom said Friday during a visit to the facility. “San Quentin is iconic, San Quentin is known worldwide. If San Quentin can do it, it can be done anywhere else.”

The move by Newsom, 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 moved from San Quentin to other prisons.

It’s part of a decades-long transformation of the state’s sprawling prison system, which went under federal receivership in 2005 after a court determined prison medical care was so lacking it amounted to cruel and unusual punishment. A panel of judges later ordered the state to dramatically reduce the prison population because of overcrowding.

Full details of the plan were not immediately clear, but Newsom said it would build on the innovative programs San Quentin is already known for, such as housing an accredited junior college and running an award-winning newspaper put together by prisoners.

San Quentin, California’s oldest prison, has housed high-profile criminals such as cult leader Charles Manson, convicted murderers and serial killers. It was the site of violent uprisings in the 1960s and 1970s.

About 800 people are released from the prison every year, and the goal is to keep them from committing another crime and ending up back in the system, Newsom said.

“At San Quentin, we believe people can change and they can grow. If given real opportunity and effective tools, people can discover their true potential and transform their lives and become very productive members of our society,” Ron Broomfield, the prison’s former warden, said at Friday’s event.

Newsom’s office cited as a model 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 taken inspiration from the Scandinavian country’s policies.

In maximum-security Norwegian prisons, cells often look more like dorm rooms with additional furniture such as chairs, desks, even TVs, and prisoners have kitchen access and activities like basketball. The nation has a low recidivism rate.

The Prison Law Office, a public interest law firm that filed the 2001 lawsuit over prison medical care, has advocated for such an approach to prisons and led tours of European correctional facilities for U.S. lawmakers. On a 2011 trip to prisons in Germany and the Netherlands, Donald Specter, executive director of the law office, said he was shocked to see that they were “so much more humane” than prisons back home.

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

Specter said the rehabilitation-centered approach reduces recidivism, meaning there will be fewer victims of crime in the long run.

A group made up public safety experts, crime victims and formerly incarcerated people will advise the state on the transformation. Newsom is allocating $20 million to launch the plan.

Critics of Newsom’s announcement said it follows continued prioritization of people who have committed crimes over victims.

“We’re in a climate where it’s all about the offenders and the criminals and not about the innocent victims that have been victimized, traumatized, harmed — family members that are devastated living without their loved ones because they were murdered and taken away too early,” said Patricia Wenskunas, chief executive officer of the Crime Survivors Resource Center.

Republican Assemblymember Tom Lackey said his Democratic colleagues should focus more on supporting crime victims.

“Communities win when we have rehabilitative efforts, but yet, how about victims?” Lackey said. “Have we rehabilitated them?”

Meanwhile some activists say Newsom’s plan doesn’t go far enough. Amber-Rose Howard, executive director of Californians United for a Responsible Budget, a group focused on reducing the prison population, isn’t convinced a “Norway model” would work in the United States since the two countries have vastly different histories.

“Newsom should stay on track with closing more prisons, with implementing policies that have been passed that would reduce incarceration and that would get people home,” she said.

California voters upheld the death penalty at the ballot in 2016, but they’ve also supported easing certain criminal penalties in an attempt to reduce mass incarceration as part of a more recent movement away from tough-on-crime policies that once dominated the state.

The prison houses the first accredited junior college in the country based entirely behind bars, offering classes in literature, astronomy, U.S. government and an Associate of Arts degree.

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

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

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


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

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