This story appeared in Calmatters
San Quentin housed California’s death row for decades. Now Gov. Newsom wants the prison on San Francisco Bay to emphasize rehabilitation and helping inmates re-enter society.
California’s most high-profile prison will be reorganized as a rehabilitation center under a plan the governor is expected to announce Friday — a move hailed as revolutionary by some prison reform advocates but derided by prison abolitionists as mere window dressing in place of the more dramatic changes they want.
Gov. Gavin Newsom is expected to say that the state will spend $20 million to begin the reorganization of San Quentin State Prison from an institution that houses 3,300 incarcerated people at a high-security site on the San Francisco Bay to a “center for innovation focused on education, rehabilitation and breaking cycles of crime.”
What that ends up looking like remains, for now, unclear. The new facility will be designed under an advisory committee that includes crime victims, formerly incarcerated people and academics, according to Newsom’s office. The Democratic-controlled Legislature also must approve funding for the rehabilitation plan.
“This is certainly new and it’s bold and it’s ambitious, and I am delighted to see it as a step in the right direction,” said Sharon Dolovich, director of the UCLA Prison Law and Policy Program.
“There’s many a slip between the cup and the lip, so who knows how it’s going to roll out. But the idea is right.”
Newsom’s office did not provide a final cost estimate for the facility’s reorganization. He has marked four other state prisons for closure since he took office in 2019, a trend enabled by California’s falling population of state prison inmates.
A Newsom spokesperson said he doesn’t anticipate laying off any prison staff as part of the change.
San Quentin is known as the home of California’s death row, although the state has not executed an inmate since 2006. Newsom in 2019 declared a moratorium on executions. In 2022, he announced a plan to dismantle death row and send condemned inmates to other sites.
The new plan would complete the closing of death row and shut a Prison Industry Authority warehouse. The facility would be renamed the San Quentin Rehabilitation Center.
Some of the larger questions about the reorganization will remain unanswered until the prison’s advisory committee decides them, including which imprisoned people are eligible for the rehabilitation center.
The new facility will also offer job training, according to the governor’s office, though the advisory committee will have to decide for which jobs inmates will be trained. In prisons in other states that emphasize vocational training, the jobs include plumbing and long-haul trucking.
The plan for the new facility is modeled on prisons in Scandinavian countries, including Norway, which significantly improved its rate of recidivism from 60%-70% in the 1980s to about 20% today when it began to allow prisoners more freedom and focused its prisons on rehabilitation.
In those prisons, incarcerated people can wear their own clothes, cook their own food and have relative freedom of movement within the prison walls. That model has taken root in states as disparate as deep-blue Connecticut and deep-red North Dakota.
As far back as 1983, San Quentin has stood as a symbol of California’s inability to safely house its inmate population. A federal Justice Department report from that year pointed to overcrowded conditions, filthy facilities and “serious problems in management.”
More than 20 years later, San Quentin prisoners were among those to file a lawsuit against the California prison system, alleging that the medical care they received was inadequate. As part of that lawsuit, a judge found that up to 10 deaths at San Quentin were from preventable causes.
More recently, at least seven San Quentin prisoners held a hunger strike to protest what they described as dismal conditions during a massive COVID-19 outbreak and quarantine at the facility in 2021.
Gangs have been able to operate in San Quentin, as they have in most California prisons. Even in its highest-security unit, the Safe Housing Unit, which keeps particularly dangerous or influential inmates in solitary confinement for all but one or two hours per day, a former member of a California prison gang has told CalMatters that he was able to run a crew of Mexican Mafia gang members from inside the unit.
The prison, California’s oldest, also has a lengthy list of maintenance needs that totaled more than $1.6 billion in 2021. A report from the Legislative Analyst’s Office from last month indicated that the state has the capacity to close up to nine prisons and eight yards by 2027 as the California inmate population continues to shrink, and recommended closing the prisons with the biggest maintenance needs.
A model for California rehabilitation
But San Quentin is also a center of opportunity for inmates, with an award-winning prison newspaper, the inmate-hosted podcast Ear Hustle and a degree program where inmates can earn an associate’s degree in general studies after completing 20 classes.
Upending the few things that work at San Quentin would be one of the downsides to reorganizing the prison, said Brian Kaneda, deputy director for Californians United for a Responsible Budget, which has a list of ten prisons it wants Newsom to close by 2027.
“One reason San Quentin isn’t on our list for closures is because it has good programming,” Kaneda said. “Now, there’s no such thing as a bad prison to close, we would love San Quentin to close, but what happens to the programming there?”
The broader plan, Kaneda said, set off “a big alarm bell” for prison abolition advocates.
“The last thing California needs is a new philosophy of incarceration led by (the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation), who have proven themselves poor stewards of the public trust,” Kaneda said.
The Assembly Republican Caucus did not immediately return messages from CalMatters seeking comment.
A bill that passed the Legislature last year would have created a similar pilot program on other prison campuses. Newsom vetoed that bill and blamed its costs.
The bill’s author, Assemblymember Carlos Villapuda, a Stockton Democrat, said he’s headed to Norway this year with CDCR officials to better understand how their prisons work. Villapudua’s proposal centered on trucking, an industry in his district that he said needs fresh blood.
The proposal as he designed it would have allowed people who are incarcerated to earn their commercial driver’s license while still in prison.