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'Turning a New Page': Infamous San Quentin Prison to Become Hub for Rehabilitation

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A man in uniform stands next to a sign that says "California State Prison, San Quentin," with the castle-like facade of the prison behind him.
A California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation officer wears a protective mask as he stands guard at the front gate of San Quentin State Prison on June 29, 2020, in Marin County. (Justin Sullivan/Getty Images)

Updated 1:30 p.m., Friday

San Quentin, California’s oldest state prison, and among its most notorious, will be transformed into a rehabilitative facility, where incarcerated people at lower risk of misconduct can receive education and training in preparation for their release, Gov. Gavin Newsom announced Friday.

Under the proposal, the Marin County lockup, which currently incarcerates about 3,900 people, including 546 on death row, will be transformed by 2025 into what Newsom hopes will be a world-class rehabilitation center based loosely on a Scandinavian model of incarceration.

"We want to be the preeminent restorative justice facility in the world — that’s the goal," Newsom said Friday, during a visit to the prison, which he said will be renamed the San Quentin Rehabilitation Center.

Full details of the plan were not immediately clear, but Newsom said it would build on the innovative programs San Quentin is already known for, such as an accredited junior college and an award-winning newspaper and podcast.

The new direction — which Newsom dubbed the “California Model” — will be aimed at ensuring people inside the prison receive the tools and resources they need — from therapy to education and job training — to succeed in the outside world and steer clear of additional criminal behavior, he said.

The transformation will be data-driven, Newsom said, and inspired by “wildly successful” approaches in places like Norway, which has one of the lowest recidivism rates in the world.

In maximum-security Norwegian prisons, cells often look more like dorm rooms with additional furniture such as chairs, desks and even TVs, and incarcerated people have access to kitchens and activities like basketball.

The announcement comes four years after Newsom declared a moratorium on the death penalty in California, with all remaining people on San Quentin’s death row slated to eventually be transferred to other prisons in the state.

“Sentences are not being changed, I want to make that crystal clear,” said Newsom, a staunch opponent of the death penalty. He noted that those currently on San Quentin's death row will be assessed individually to determine risk of violent behavior, with the goal of integrating them all into the general prison population by the end of 2024.

California’s prison population has been falling for years, the result of criminal justice reforms instituted after the U.S. Supreme Court in 2011 ordered the state to slim down its overcrowded lockups. Newsom already shut down one prison in 2021, with a second scheduled to shutter this summer and a third set to close by 2025.

More on the history of San Quentin align='left'

Just the first two closures will save the state about $300 million a year, officials estimate.

But Newsom's attempted transformation of San Quentin — a facility located on a scenic point jutting into the San Francisco Bay, in one of the wealthiest areas of the state — will be his most visible prison reform to date.

The prison, which has the largest death row population in the country, is widely recognized for having housed a slew of high-profile people convicted of heinous offenses, including cult leader Charles Manson and Scott Peterson, and was the site of violent uprisings in the 1960s and '70s. More recently, however, the facility has garnered attention for adopting some of the most innovative prison education and training programs in the nation.

“We’re making progress. But we’re not doing justice to the ‘R’ in ‘CDCR,’” Newsom said, referring to the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation, which oversees the state's sprawling prison system. “We have to be in the homecoming business. It’s not just about rehabilitation, it’s about homecoming. You want folks coming back feeling better.”

Although California's recidivism rate has declined in recent years, it remains stubbornly high: On average nearly 50% of people who leave the prison system reoffend, according to a 2019 state audit.

“Where’s the public safety in that?” said Newsom. He noted that 800 people are released from San Quentin every year, and the primary goal should be keeping them from committing another crime and ending back in the system.

Supporters of criminal justice reform cheered the announcement. Among them was Jay Jordan, CEO of the Alliance for Safety and Justice, a national network of crime survivors that advocates for less incarceration and more support for both criminal offenders and victims.

Jordan spent years in California prisons after being convicted of robbery at the age of 18. Behind bars, he was able to receive therapy for the first time in his life, and that alone helped change everything, he said.

Making San Quentin an institution entirely dedicated to providing that kind of support marks a huge shift in California’s approach to punishment and rehabilitation, Jordan added.

“It signifies that we're turning a new page in California's history. We're not just going to warehouse people in prison and then they get out and they're not successful,” he said. “We’re actually going to have solutions where people … are going to places to get what they need to stop the cycle of crime.”

Many of the details remain to be worked out, including specific timelines and how to physically transform a 171-year-old building full of concrete cells and outdated buildings into a rehabilitative space. Newsom included $20 million in his January budget proposal to aid in San Quentin’s transition, and he plans to name a group of experts to oversee the changes.

Dan Seeman, who advised both Newsom and his predecessor, Gov. Jerry Brown, on criminal justice policy, said the plan will not only save money but eventually make California safer.

“You close the prisons — but this is the next step to make sure it’s successful,” he said. “We have the ability, due to the lower population, to realize savings from prison closures, but that in and of itself can’t be the only approach. We have to pair it with efforts to reduce recidivism, and initiatives like this are ways to do that at relatively low cost to taxpayers.”

Seeman said the Norway model Newsom is so inspired by is based on a wholly different philosophy of incarceration.

“I think in other countries such as Norway, they view the loss of liberty as the punishment,” he said. “They’re more intentional about what is done during folks’ time in custody to make sure they come out better neighbors and productive members of society.”

That means using the time people spend behind bars to help them move past all the things that drove them to commit crimes in the first place, he said.

Correction (March 17): This story originally stated there were nearly 700 people on death row in San Quentin. In fact, there are currently a total of 668 people — including 21 women — on death row in all of California. Of those, 546 men are now on San Quentin's death row. Since the passage of Proposition 66 in 2016, 101 other people formerly on death row have been transferred to other institutions. 

This story includes reporting from KQED's Matthew Green and The Associated Press.

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