By D. Razor Babb
“The degree of civilization in a society can be judged by entering its prisons.”
In March, 2023, California Governor Gavin Newsom announced that San Quentin Prison, the state’s oldest penitentiary, will now be called, “San Quentin Rehabilitation Center” and shall be a mecca for rehabilitation, education, and job training. The intent is to “completely reimagine what prison means” by transforming Quentin, and eventually the entire California penal system, into the “California Model” based on the Norwegian incarceration system, a much less restrictive model than US facilities. Newsom wants to incorporate the best practices from the Scandinavian countries like Norway, which has one of the lowest recidivism rates in the world (around 20%).
Mule Creek State Prison resident Randall Cash (62) spent thirteen years on death row at San Quentin. Mule Creek, nestled in the Sierra foothills in rural Amador County about 50 miles east of Sacramento, is a world away from Cash’s days on the row. On a level II yard inhabited by a large elderly demographic, as we watched a softball game in progress beneath a simmering sunny sky, he reflects on his days in East Block at San Quentin… “When I was there (1992-2005) there wasn’t anything close to rehabilitation or programs. We had the hobby shop where we could sell our artwork or hobby crafts, no college or groups or anything like that. There were about 540 men on death row’s East Block at the time, a building full of lost souls. I remember thinking when I got there, ‘This is it, the end of the line.’ There wasn’t any light at the end of the tunnel, the only way we could see out was the death chamber, or suicide. During my time there there were 13 executions and around 24 suicides. Now I guess, things are changing. It’s about time they started treating us like men instead of animals.”
In Norway the strategy is to fashion an environment conducive to reduce prisoner despair, deprivation, fear, and suffering. The Norwegian model is universally considered to be the epitome of a successful rehabilitative environment, known globally for its emphasis on prisoner treatment and reentry. Nordic countries are believed to provide more humane prisons because of their unique welfare-state social system. In Norway, for example, this archetype is ingrained into the society in a culture of equanimity, “social solidarity and cohesion.¹” As a welfare state the primary objective of the country is to provide their citizens with the best chance at maximizing their potential to achieve the most unrestricted environment possible. This aspiration is apparent not only in free society, but operates collaterally in the prison environment with the objective of rehabilitation and reintegration.
The vision of the Amend Project at the University of California, San Francisco, is to work to transform correctional culture inside prisons and jails and reduce the debilitating effects of those environments.When they organized a trip to Norway in 2019 to observe the Scandinavian prison model, they invited California Department of Corrections administrators, formerly incarcerated people, peace officer union representatives, and criminal justice advocates to come along. The purpose of the tour was ambitious -to change the culture of the US penal system.
The director of the Amend Project, Brie Williams, is a professor of medicine at UCSF Center for Vulnerable Populations, and co-chair for the advisory group that’s spearheading the transition at San Quentin. She arrived in the criminal justice system gathering evidence of mental damage suffered by defendants awaiting trial in solitary confinement. In an interview with Bill Keller, founder of the Marshall Project and author of “What’s Prison For?,” she stated, “I had this moment when it hit me that we’re all on the same side … that US prisons had failed us–the people who live in them, the people who work in them, and their families and communities.’ Regarding Governor Newsom’s March 17th announcement, she said, “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 San Quentin repurposing advisory group is comprised of experts in criminal justice, rehabilitation and reform, as well as representatives of crime victims’ groups and survivors, formerly incarcerated individuals, and volunteers from California and around the world.
Portions of the California model are already spreading to other locales. Mule Creek State Prison began renovating the dayrooms in some of the level II buildings by replacing rows of metal benches with sturdy plastic lounge chairs and installing new game tables. The game tables are ADA (Americans with Disabilities Act) compliant. A wheelchair can fit under the lip of the table, that’s new. Warden Patrick Covello, Chief Deputy Warden Brian Holmes, and Associate Warden Erik Pedersen toured building 19 where the renovation began. Covello said, “This is just a start, we’ll be doing the dayrooms in all the buildings.” The new furniture is designed to create a more inmate-friendly feel and signifies a first step in changes to come.
Residents’ reactions are mixed. Some see the dayroom renovations as window dressing. However, nearly everyone admits, many grudgingly, that the new look and atmosphere is an improvement, even if the chairs are being described as, “really tough on the back.” When asked whether they thought the new prison model would work in California, administrators, line staff, and prisoners alike take a wait-and-see attitude. One Mule Creek Prison administrator shared that he thought it would be difficult to implement a more staff-inmate friendly cooperative dynamic on a level IV yard where programming and violence are frequently at odds, but at a programming level II facility, “maybe.” He went on to say, “These guys [level II prisoners] were once on a level IV, they just need the opportunity.” The difference between a level IV and level II yard is significant. In the California system, for the most part, prisoners have to work their way through the higher levels where violence, gang activity, drugs, and every other sort of potential pitfall lurks before finally arriving at a lower security level facility.
Jamel Walker, a member of the Inmate Advisory Council at Mule Creek, was asked if he believed the new prison model would work. He said, “The key component is staff buy in. Creating a dialogue between staff and inmate shareholders is essential. We have proposed a committee at Mule Creek to help transition the California model into implementation. How they respond to that proposal will be a gauge to how serious they are. We’re having enough trouble trying to move furniture [in here], how much harder to implement a cultural sea change? The attitudes of those who hold me captive inform me of who I am, and remind me of where I am. We respond to how we are treated, Whenever staff starts seeing us as human beings, it will work…til then, not a chance.”
Jamel’s observation and experience is not in a vacuum. Most of the residents interviewed echo a similar sentiment. The California prison environment is, by any comparison, a far cry from what’s to be found in the frozen tundra of Oslo. Norway’s total prison population is around 3,800. In California it’s a slimmed down version of nearly 95,000 (for an 85,000 designed capacity) after peaking at about 174,000 in 2006. It took a Supreme Court ruling to force reductions, with a cap set at 137.5% max. As bad as being confined in overcrowded conditions are, consistently it is relations between the keepers and the kept that spark the most heated controversies concerning confinement. It is important to point out that negative aspects of the prison environment aren’t restricted to those being restrained. It is not only prisoners who suffer the vicissitudes of mass incarceration.
In researching this story a staggering statistic catches the eye– “… in 2019, the correctional officer suicide rate was 10%, and that rate for retired officers was 31%; the 2019 rate of PTSD in corrections officers is one in three.” In the April 2018 San Quentin News, Kevin Sawyer reported that suicides are disturbingly high for correctional officers, and the number of California officers who have considered or attempted suicide was three times the national rate. These numbers emphasize the debilitating effects that the prison environment has on those working in the state’s and nation’s prisons.
Correctional officers are the most prevalent workforce group in prisons. They are the ones responsible for carrying out correctional policy and regulations in everyday practice and have the most interaction with prisoners. The intimate nature and close contact may explain, in part, many of the difficulties correctional staff face. The average life expectancy of a correctional officer is 12 [to 16] years less than other Americans. Along with suicide, divorce and substance abuse rates are also higher.³ While stress associated with working among convicted criminals is significant, officers report that their “main job stressors were other staff, poor supervision, and administrative policies.”⁴ These statistics support the claim that prisons are highly dysfunctional working environments. While officers in California undergo a six to nine month training regimen, in Norway the training is two years worth of academic study with an emphasis on sociological and psychological studies in college and university, including theoretical learning and practical training at special training prisons.
Earl Breckenridge, a longtime California prisoner who has experienced the system from its most violent and primitive aspects, says, “I believe the officer training is the lynchpin of the entire concept of the new model. I went through San Quentin in 2017 … it was a dark, dank, and dreary place. I felt like I had finally arrived at the end of the world. I think the whole state and nation’s philosophy of crime and punishment needs to be modified to conform to modern understanding of criminal behavior. Now that we have a better awareness of the trauma that so many prisoners have faced which allowed them to commit crime, there has to be a realization that prisons need to be more than places that just warehouse people. They have to be places to help develop emotional maturity, a place for growth, like a second family, a place where personal worth is developed through empathy, education, self-understanding, and love the exact opposite of how we got here.”
Dr. Curt Thompson writes in The Soul of Desire that trauma has overwhelming, lasting, and devastating long term effects that disrupt a person’s ability to function and experience the world without seeing and perceiving it through a lens of trauma.
Earl Breckenridge shares his experience: “When I came to prison I was 19 years old and 160 pounds. I entered the cell of a 35-year-old man who was 320 pounds of solid muscle and from a rival gang. When the cell door slammed behind me, locking me in, I felt helpless, powerless. It was the same way I felt when I was a child. All that physical, mental, emotional, sexual trauma I suffered as a young boy came back to me and flooded my brain with neurochemical torrents that drown me in fear and despair. I struggled to retain the appearance of normalcy, but the situation and my reality was anything but. It was a survive or die moment that carried with me throughout the next forty plus years of incarceration. I wasn’t ‘me’ anymore, I was a self-created personification of what I felt I had to become in order to survive. None of that was conscious thinking, it was instinctual and reactive. I had no concept or knowledge of operating from a paradigm of trauma, I didn’t know anything about fight or flight response or that cortisol was flooding my frontal lobe blocking out reasoning ability, and that not only was my brain on fire but that it was physiologically realigning neural pathways. My environment, the situation was so terrifying that it was recreating my being and influencing my reality. It was validating all the distorted, maladjusted beliefs that had been my past certifying that, yes, the world is a cruel, dangerous place and to survive I needed to be just as cruel and dangerous, and more so.”
The prison environment does that to people. We become a product of our environment. When the US embarked on “an era of mass incarceration” in the late 1970s, burgeoning prison populations resulted in “dehumanizing, punishment oriented regimes.”⁵ By the turn of the century California incarcerated 163,000 of the state’s citizens and the US prison population ballooned to over 2 million. Due to lawsuits, calls for prison reform, and a move toward “decriminalization of minor offenses [there has been] a 22% “decline in incarceration” rates over the past seven years.⁶
Despite the decline in overall prison population the US still boasts four times the incarceration rate of England and Australia, five times that of France, and six times Canada’s rate.⁷ In “Uprooting Mass Incarceration: From Restoration to Transformation” Jeremy Dang examines the social impact of mass incarceration:
… incarceration itself exacerbates the disparities between privileged and disadvantaged communities by creating a self-sustaining cycle where the most heavily policed and incarcerated populations produce future generations that are themselves disproportionately likely to face poverty and incarceration.⁸ In doing so, incarceration worsens vulnerable communities. It is a cycle that is responsible for sustaining a stable, lasting underclass in America, where the most disadvantaged populations are kept there by mass incarceration policies.⁹
Research shows that although mass incarceration does not greatly decrease crime, it does have negative effects on state budgets, individuals, families, and entire communities. Additionally, directing assets toward incarcerating more and more citizens averts funding from other important social programs such as education and healthcare.
Governor Newsom has earmarked $20 million in his proposed 2023-24 budget towards the project to repurpose San Quentin, with a goal of it being operational by 2025. The overall state budget of $297 billion for 2023-24 includes a total expenditure of $14.5 billion for the prison system.
In a mass incarceration system where the experience and perception of those being confined largely reflects the reality of a culture of fear and control through intimidation and punishment, a 180 degree shift in that culture can appear unrealistic. CDCR’s Director of Adult Institutions Connie Gipson spent six days with the group that toured Norway prisons and rehab facilities in 2019. Returning from that trip she said, “I always look at experiences, trainings, with an open mind, but I admit I was pretty apprehensive about this. Early on I felt like this was too good to be true, but the more I started to listen to their concepts and principles of normalcy, humanity, the more I bought in. Everything clicked and I was just blown away. I came back excited because I feel there are a lot of possibilities for us.”
The former death row prisoner, Randall Cash, whom we spoke with earlier, came by building 19 recently to have a look at the new furniture. His death sentence was overturned in 2005 and converted to Life Without the Possibility of Parole (LWOP). “It’s like another death sentence,” he says. “In a lot of ways, when they told me I was an LWOP, it was worse than the death penalty, They threw me into places where the prison politics meant having to get into a lot of stuff that I felt wasn’t really my business. Stuff I didn’t want any part of. Prison’s a lousy, dirty, violent place. You can find yourself right down there in the mud pretty quick. Some of the situations we face are life and death… the rules, the law, making good decisions, it don’t have nothing to do with it.’
Cash committed himself to programming and rehabilitation, he attends groups and works as an ADA caregiver. Recently he was informed that his LWOP sentence was under review due to a change in laws, and his old attorney looked him up wanting to take the case. In response to whether he believed the new model would work in California, Cash thought for a long moment before answering. He said, “Things are a lot different between back then and now (referring to his 13 years on death row at San Quentin). I’ll have access to everything the new plan has to offer.”
We took a last look at the new dayroom furniture and headed outside. The yard crew was cutting the grass on the expansive lawn where volleyball, soccer, and softball are played. We were passed by joggers and guys coming back from the canteen with bags filled with store items. Every few steps somebody hollered a greeting or waved. Before Cash headed off to work he added, “In this plan I see possibility. Now, anything seems possible.’