By David M. Greenwald
San Quentin – Governor Newsom, alongside state legislators, survivors of crime and victim advocates, and civil rights leaders, announced that San Quentin State Prison—the oldest and most notorious prison in California and home to the largest “death row” in the United States—will be transformed from a maximum-security prison into a one-of-a-kind facility focused on improving public safety through rehabilitation and education.
The governor announced on Friday that the prison will be renamed “San Quentin Rehabilitation Center,” and “will be transformed in part under the direction of an advisory group composed of state and world-renowned rehabilitation and public safety experts.
“California is transforming San Quentin—the state’s most notorious prison with a dark past—into the nation’s most innovative rehabilitation facility focused on building a brighter and safer future,” said Governor Newsom.
He said, “Today, we take the next step in our pursuit of true rehabilitation, justice, and safer communities through this evidenced-backed investment, creating a new model for safety and justice—the California Model—that will lead the nation.
The new plan calls for an emphasis on vocational training, and offer job training like plumbing and long-haul trucking.
The plan for the new facility is modeled on prisons in Scandinavian countries, including Norway, which significantly reduced its rate of recidivism from 60%-70% in the 1980s to about 20% today when it began to allow people serving sentences more freedom and focused its prisons on rehabilitation.
“San Quentin has long challenged the status quo: In the 1940s, the warden closed the dungeons once ubiquitous to incarceration, and launched educational and vocational programs in their place,” said Advisory Group Co-Chair and San Quentin Warden Ron Broomfield.
He continued, “Today, we again challenge the status quo as we reimagine San Quentin and create an environment where people are empowered to discover their full potential while pursuing educational and vocational opportunities that will prepare them for a successful future—and make our communities safer.”
“By transforming San Quentin into a place that promotes health and positive change, California is making a historic commitment to redefining the institution’s purpose in our society,” said Advisory Group Co-Chair and Professor of Medicine at the UCSF Center for Vulnerable Populations Dr. Brie Williams.
Williams continued, “I look forward to lifting the voices of people who have lived or worked in prisons to imagine a center for healing trauma, repairing harm, expanding knowledge, restoring lives, and improving readiness for community return.”
The governor was mindful that, despite progress, recidivism is too high, people leaving prison are unprepared to meet the challenges of everyday life—and because 95 percent of those incarcerated return to their communities, this represents a public safety issue.
The governor explained, “You know, Dr. King talked about that. We’re all bound together by web of mutuality, you know, and so in that spirit of reconciliation recognition, we’re here to do more and be better. Not just asking you to do more those that are incarcerated and be better, but all of us to do more and be better to reconcile and to address these stubborn realities. We are as dumb as we want to be.”
He continued, “Two thirds of folks, Senator says, coming out of the prison every single year, you know, or at least within three years, violate some probation order or committed another damn crime. I mean, two thirds. And we perpetuate that system, and we call that system somehow public safety oriented. Where’s the public safety in that?”
The Governor asked, “How are people coming back? Are they ready to reintegrate in society? They’re ready to be fully participatory in the life of their city and their county, our state and our nation? Or are they bitter?”
He said, “And so for us, this is about real public safety. This is about keeping communities safe. This is about getting serious about addressing the issue of crime and violence in our state, but doing things differently and acknowledging with humility that we have failed for too long.”
Assemblymember Mia Bonta agreed, “Each year, the state spends $14.5 billion on prisons, or about $106,000 to lock up one person of that amount. Only 3.4% has traditionally been spent towards rehabilitation programs, and if you put it in real dollars, only $73 are spent in programming supported by community-based organizations.”
She said, “It’s clearly time for a significant paradigm shift in the way that we think about incarceration and rehabilitation in our prisons.”
Bonta explained, “Opening prisons to more programming by CBOs (Community Based Organizations) not only shifts the culture and the prisons, it helps to forge a connection to the communities that people will return to. And let’s be clear, 95% of our people who are in prison will be coming home to us and will be rejoining us as neighbors. Ask yourself, what condition do you want them to rejoin? Our community?”
The Prosecutor’s Alliance noted, “California has a long record of promoting punitive approaches to crime control. Over the past 50 years, California invested heavily in police and prisons, constructing a vast network of massive penal institutions.”
Since 1980, the state has built 22 new prisons, but only one new University of California campus.
“This year alone California is poised to spend $18 billion on prisons, at the expense of other strategies that can make us safer,” the Prosecutor’s Alliance said. “Prisons do little to address the root causes of criminal behavior. In recent decades, an extensive body of research has been amassed showing that preventative approaches which address the underlying causes of crime are far more effective at reducing crime and recidivism than prisons in the long run.”
They added, “By focusing on rehabilitation and job training—alongside treatment and supportive services—we can help people turn their lives around and reduce the chances that they will reoffend.”
Reformers see this transformation as “a critical step towards a more effective justice system that serves both offenders and crime victims.”
“We congratulate Governor Newsom for taking this necessary step to increase safety in California. We’ve spent billions putting people in cages in spite of 40 years of data demonstrating that punitive approaches to safety don’t make us safer,” said Prosecutors Alliance Founder and Executive Director Cristine Soto DeBerry.
She added, “Governor Newsom’s investment in an approach with demonstrated success is a downpayment on the massive overhaul necessary to create a safer California.”
The Governor’s 2023-24 budget proposal allocates $20 million to begin the reimagining and repurposing of the facility.
The transformation will be led in part by an advisory group composed of criminal justice, rehabilitation, and public safety experts from around the state, nation, and world, as well as representatives of crime victims and survivors, formerly incarcerated individuals, staff, key state-level stakeholders, advocates, and volunteers.
Both the existing condemned row housing unit, which is being shut down—and those housed there safely moved to other prisons to serve their sentences—and a Prison Industry Authority warehouse will be transformed into a center for innovation focused on education, rehabilitation, and breaking cycles of crime.