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'Returning as Good Neighbors': For Young Prisoners, Newsom Proposes Rehab Program

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Gavin Newsom speaks during his primary election night gathering on June 5, 2018, in San Francisco. (Justin Sullivan/Getty Images)

Gov. Gavin Newsom, who has promised to focus on rehabilitation in state prisons, on Friday will propose a new program for young offenders that he says will resemble a college campus more than a state lockup — and let them access more educational, therapeutic and vocational opportunities.

The proposal to create a “youth offender rehabilitative community” at Valley State Prison in Chowchilla will build on an existing program in place at that prison and nine others since 2015. Called the Youth Offender Program, it lets inmates committed to prison before their 22nd birthday access more rehabilitative programs than other inmates — and mentor one another.

Part of his 2020-2021 state budget, Newsom will propose spending $6.2 million in the first fiscal year on the program and $10.1 million each year after that to help create a campus-style environment where young inmates will live, work and study; hire extra staff; and create new partnerships with outside entities, including Fresno State University.

His office said the program will be modeled after successful initiatives in Norway and elsewhere. In a statement, Newsom noted research showing how differently — and positively — the brains of young adults can respond to rehabilitation.

“This proposal is in line with making our prison system more focused on preparing returning citizens for life on the outside,” Newsom said.

“The goal is to reduce recidivism and protect everyone’s safety by equipping individuals with the tools and skills necessary to return to the community as good neighbors," he added.

In August, Newsom invited KQED on a tour of another immersive rehabilitative program at Solano State Prison, which is run by the Delancey Street Foundation. After hearing from inmates about how transformational that program has been in their lives, the governor appeared moved, telling the group of men that their success stories were “awesome and powerful” and “profoundly important.”

Just outside the prison, Newsom told KQED he was committed to going out across the system, identifying what’s working and expanding it.

“I'm not here to dismiss bad behavior. You need to be held to account and we have got to keep violent predators off the street. But today's was a tour — and a story — of redemption and lives that have meaning and purpose, and lives that are valuable,” he said.

He noted that ultimately, most inmates will be released back into California communities.

“The question is do you want them to come back stronger, more resilient, or do you want them coming back more hardened and more likely to recommit crimes?” he said.

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One of those people is Sumit Lal, a 23-year-old Sacramento man who was sentenced to prison at age 18 for credit card fraud, burglary and arson. Lal said he grew up in a “gang-infested” neighborhood with a lot of guns and violence —and that in some ways, it wasn’t a surprise for him to end up in prison.

“I had no idea prison would turn out to be such a wonderful opportunity for me to change my life around," he said. “I was able to make something positive out of that negativity.”

Lal said that wasn’t the case at first: When he first got to prison, he was in a high security facility with a lot of violence. But after transferring to the Youth Offender Program at San Quentin, he was able to study software engineering and is now working in that field while he also attends college.

“In a perfect world, in 10 years, I am combining my passions for engineering and medicine and hopefully working at like a biomedical research company,” he said.

If Newsom’s plan comes to fruition, Lal said, he also wants to visit the new program at Valley State Prison and help mentor the inmates there.


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