San Quentin to be redesigned in California to focus on rehabilitation

SAN QUENTIN, California. Visiting the oldest prison in San Quentin, California, which once housed a gas chamber that executed prisoners sentenced to the largest death row in the country, Gov. Gavin Newsom on Friday touted a plan to overhaul the facility in favor of a rehabilitation center. an approach that could become a model for the whole world.

The facility will be renamed the San Quentin Rehabilitation Center and more than 500 death row inmates will be transferred to other locations in the California penitentiary system. The prison holds more than 2,000 other prisoners with lesser sentences.

“We want to be the best restorative justice institution in the world – that’s our goal,” Newsom said from the warehouse where his proposed programs will be stored. “San Quentin is iconic, San Quentin is known all over the world. If San Quentin can do it, it can be done anywhere.”

Despite Newsom’s ambitious tone, he offered a few specific details about what the new system would look like and who it would serve. It remained unclear how far the plan would go to reimagine the prison that once housed California’s most notorious criminals like Charles Manson and the site of violent uprisings in the 1960s and 1970s.

Entrance to San Quentin Prison
The facility will be renamed the San Quentin Rehabilitation Center and more than 500 death row inmates will be relocated.

But it has also become known for innovative programs where prisoners can earn degrees, write for an award-winning newspaper, study the arts and receive vocational training in preparation for their return to society.

A panel of public safety experts, crime victims and ex-convicts will advise the state on a transformation that Newsom hopes to complete by 2025. He provides $20 million to launch the plan.

The move by Newsom, who recently began his second term, follows his 2019 moratorium on executions, which drew criticism from some who claimed he flouted the will of the voters, who in 2016 upheld the death penalty in the vote.

From 2020 to 2022, more than 100 death row inmates have been transferred from San Quentin to other prisons as part of a pilot program run by the state. The state spends about $326 million annually to operate San Quentin, and the Newsom administration did not say whether the new approach would save money.

The latest plan is part of a decades-long transformation of the state’s sprawling penitentiary system, which came under federal control in 2005 after a court ruled prison health care was so lacking it amounted to cruel and unusual punishment. The state was later ordered by a panel of judges to drastically reduce the number of inmates due to overcrowding.

About 800 people are released from San Quentin each year, Newsom said, and the goal is to keep them from committing another crime and returning to the system.

San Quentin
Prisoners can earn a degree, write for an award-winning newspaper, study art, and receive vocational training to prepare for their return to society.

San Quentin inmate Juan Moreno Haynes said the plan would help ensure taxpayer money is spent to end the ongoing cycle of reoffending.

“I’ll ask the Californians: what do you want?” He said. “Do you want them to come out of prison better rehabilitated with skills, or do you want them to come out of prison worse than they were in order to constantly fuel this crime model?”

Newsom’s office cited Norway’s approach to incarceration as exemplary, which aims to prepare people for their return to society. In 2019, staff from the State Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation toured Norwegian prisons and noted the positive interaction between inmates and staff. Oregon and North Dakota also drew inspiration from the politics of the Scandinavian country.

In Norwegian maximum security prisons, the cells are often more like dorm rooms with extra furniture such as chairs, tables, even TVs, and prisoners have access to the kitchen. Norway has a low rate of people who re-offend after being released from prison.

As of 2015, two-thirds of people convicted of felonies in California were re-arrested within two years of their release, according to a study by the California Public Policy Institute. Newsom said efforts to lower that rate would improve public safety.

Success will be determined “on the basis of the desire and desire of people to change themselves, change their attitudes and become citizens capable of contributing when they return to society. We must help support people along the way,” he said.

Gavin Newsom
Newsom’s office called Norway’s approach to imprisonment a model.

Prison Law Office, a public interest law firm that filed a lawsuit in 2001 over health care in California prisons, has advocated this approach to prisons and has provided tours of European correctional facilities for American lawmakers. During a 2011 tour of prisons in Germany and the Netherlands, Donald Specter, chief executive of the law firm, said he was shocked to see that they were “much more humane” than prisons back home.

“While I was there, I thought, ‘My God, we should try to import this philosophy into the United States,'” he said.

Critics of Newsom’s statement said that it follows the 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, not the innocent victims who are victimized, traumatized, hurt — family members who are devastated living without their loved ones because they were killed and taken away too soon. ”, said Patricia Venskunas, Chief Executive Officer of the Crime Survivors Resource Center.

But Amber-Rose Howard, executive director of Californians for a Responsible Budget, a prison reduction group, is not convinced the “Norwegian model” will work in the United States, because the two countries have very different histories.

“Newsom must continue to close more prisons and implement policies that will reduce the number of prisoners and bring people home,” she said.

Speakers who joined Newsom said they hope to build on the many successful programs already in place at San Quentin. The prison houses the nation’s first accredited junior college that is entirely behind bars and offers classes in literature, astronomy, and US government. The prisoners recorded and released the hugely popular podcast Ear Hustle while serving their sentence.

Phil Melendez, a former inmate in San Quentin who now works for advocacy group Smart Justice California, said the rehabilitation programs the state hopes to expand will set ex-inmates up for success when they return to society.

“During (my) time here, I have found a new sense of hope,” Melendez said in prison. “I found a cure.”

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