Declaring that he wants to “literally transform this place,” California Gov. Gavin Newsom announced last week that San Quentin State Prison will convert from a maximum-security prison to a “one-of-a-kind facility focused on improving public safety through rehabilitation and education.”
In a news conference inside the prison, Newsom said it will be renamed the “San Quentin Rehabilitation Center.” Under “the direction of an advisory group composed of state and world-renowned rehabilitation and public safety experts,” a prison warehouse “will be transformed into a center for innovation focused on education, rehabilitation, and breaking cycles of crime,” offering the imprisoned educational and vocational training to provide them the skills they will need to find jobs on the outside.
Newsom said this will “flip” the state’s high recidivism rates — it’s estimated two-thirds of prisoners released every year end up back in prison — and make San Quentin a “model for the nation.”
The concept is modeled on Norway’s incarceration system, which operates on the theory that separation from society is the punishment, and focuses on rehabilitating, training, and returning people to society. California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation staff and the head of the California Correctional Peace Officers Association visited Norway to study how the system, called the Scandinavian model, works and came away convinced of its merits. But Newsom was quick to clarify that his is the “California model,” preempting the argument that California’s penal system is much larger, more violent, and more complicated than Norway’s.
“I’m not naive at how difficult this is going to be,” he said. “Nothing that happens in these institutions is easy.” And he pointed out that San Quentin already has 500 volunteers and 80 programs in place that focus on education and rehabilitation. “We’re building on the work that’s being done, the programs that exist, and we’ll bring in programs that don’t exist.”
His budget for 2023 – 2024 proposes a $20 million allocation to begin the process of transforming the prison, which he hopes will be completed by 2025.
As for death row, the largest in the nation with a population of 668 people, the dismantling continues.
Since 2020, CDCR has transferred 101 people on San Quentin’s death row to the general population in other prisons. Ten death-sentenced people at the Central California Women’s Facility have been transferred to alternate housing units there. The state plans to close death row by the end of 2024 by moving the remaining 557 people to other prisons. The elimination of death row is the final step in a process that began in 2019 when Newsom announced a moratorium on executions and dismantled the state’s gas chamber. The death penalty is still on the books, however, and while there hasn’t been an execution since 2006, and Newsom reiterated at the news conference that he remains “firmly in opposition” to state-sanctioned murder, neither he nor the Democrat-controlled legislature seems to be inclined to put an initiative on the ballot to abolish it.