Can Newsom Really Transform San Quentin Into the 'Nation's Most Innovative Rehabilitation Facility'?

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A large walled series of buildings, a guard tower and dozens of parked cars.
San Quentin State Prison in San Quentin, Marin County, on July 26, 2023. In March, Gov. Gavin Newsom announced that the state would seek to transform the maximum security prison into a center focused on the rehabilitation of incarcerated individuals. (Martin do Nascimento/KQED)

Four months after Gov. Gavin Newsom announced an ambitious plan to transform San Quentin State Prison into a model for rehabilitation, reporters got a tour of the penitentiary best known as home to California’s largest execution chamber.

Newsom’s idea: to move condemned incarcerated people to other maximum security prisons in California and transform the prison on the San Francisco Bay into “the nation’s most innovative rehabilitation facility.”

“We want to create an atmosphere where the residents and the correctional officers are interacting as human beings,” said Sacramento Mayor Darrell Steinberg, the governor’s senior advisor on San Quentin’s future, during a walk through the prison this week.

A room full of men sitting at computers and working in blue uniforms.
Latice Collins (left) and other incarcerated individuals learn coding in the The Last Mile coding program at San Quentin State Prison. (Martin do Nascimento/KQED)

Steinberg and Ron Bloomfield, the prison’s warden, led about a dozen journalists through an update on the reimagined penitentiary that will focus on preparing incarcerated people for life on the outside.

“[It’s] a fundamental change in the way that personnel, starting with correctional officers, are trained and how they are recruited and retained,” Steinberg said.

The Norway model

Newsom’s plan for San Quentin is based largely on the way Norway and other Scandinavian countries approach crime and punishment, through de-emphasizing incarceration and deprivation of rights and prioritizing rehabilitation.

In a recent interview, state Assembly Public Safety Committee Chair Reggie Jones-Sawyer (D-Los Angeles) joked that “it’s my fault” Newsom is using Norway as a model.

A decade ago, Jones-Sawyer traveled to Norway to see how it approaches crime and punishment.

“And so what I learned is it’s completely different from the way we do it,” he said. “The most you can serve, whether you did murder, rape or whatever, you only would do 25 years, which means you’re going to get out, which means we have to rehabilitate this person no matter what in Norway.”

People jump for a ball on a basketball court.
Incarcerated people play basketball in the yard at San Quentin State Prison. (Martin do Nascimento/KQED)

Broomfield, San Quentin’s warden, acknowledged that comparing California to Norway, where the recidivism rate is less than a third of what it is in the United States, “is like comparing a grape to a watermelon,” but he says he’s 100% behind the shift.

The way Broomfield sees it, public safety requires humanizing incarcerated people and giving them real skills they can use once they are paroled.

“And we’re not going to do that by institutionalizing them,” he said. “We’re going to do that by treating them like citizens of our state. Preparing them with opportunities to really produce a better neighbor upon release.”

San Quentin, like the rest of California’s sprawling prison system, has had more than its share of bad news over the years. In 2009, a three-judge panel ordered the state to reduce its overflowing prison population, which at one point had reached 167% of capacity. The court ruled that the state’s outdated prison health system amounted to cruel and unusual punishment, in violation of the Eighth Amendment of the U.S. Constitution.

And more recently, a Marin County Superior Court judge ruled that California prison officials inflicted “cruel and unusual punishment” on people in San Quentin when more than 2,600 of them — including some staff — contracted COVID-19 in the summer of 2020. The massive outbreak happened shortly after the state transferred 121 inmates from another prison with the highest COVID rates into San Quentin’s general population without properly testing and quarantining them. In all, 28 incarcerated people, and one staff member, died of the disease.

A man wearing sunglasses in front of a large building.
Warden Ron Broomfield at San Quentin State Prison. (Martin do Nascimento/KQED)

Can San Quentin really be transformed?

Juan Haines, who has been incarcerated 27 years, is hopeful but also skeptical about the proposed changes.

“There’s a lot of people in California prisons, and just rehabilitation is the last thing on their minds,” Haines, an editor at the San Quentin News, the prison’s award-winning newspaper, told me. “But then there’s a lot of people in California prisons that are really looking for opportunities to better their lives.”

Asked to put on his journalist’s hat and say what makes him question the success of this shift, Haines rattled off several things.

“I’m skeptical about California’s overcrowded prisons and I’m skeptical over buy-in from both sides,” he said. “I’ve talked to a lot of correctional officers that really love this idea. And then there’s some that don’t.”

A man with glasses outdoors anA man with glasses outdoors and beside a chain-link fence topped with barbed wire.d beside a chain-link fence topped with barbed wire.
Juan Haines, who is incarcerated at San Quentin State Prison, where he is an editor of the prison’s award-winning newspaper, stands outside the prison’s adult learning center. (Martin do Nascimento/KQED)

Jones-Sawyer noted that when he first got to the Legislature over a decade ago, the state Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation, the agency had “a big ‘C’” for corrections, and a “little bitty ‘R'” for rehabilitation — and said he’s pleased that is changing.

Newsom’s goal to transform the state’s oldest prison into a center of innovation and education is a notion that thrills many criminal justice reformers while antagonizing death penalty proponents and other conservatives.

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At a legislative budget hearing on Newsom’s plan in May, one Republican lawmaker found the lack of details disturbing. “I try not to consider it insulting, but it’s close,” said Assemblymember Tom Lackey (R-Palmdale). “I find it to be very disturbing that we’re following a pathway where we’re being asked to fund first and answers will come later.”

A report by California’s nonpartisan Legislative Analyst’s Office underscored those concerns, noting that the governor “has not set clear and specific objectives for meeting these goals.” The administration, it added, “has not identified any clear changes to policy, practice, or prison environments it deems necessary to achieve the goals.”

Some Democrats also raised concerns about the lack of detail in Newsom’s proposal. In the end, the Legislature approved the governor’s request for $360 million in this year’s budget to convert an old furniture warehouse at San Quentin into a kind of “college campus” with more space for classes.

There are also questions about the timeline. Newsom wants the first phase of construction and programming completed by 2025.

The elephant in the room, of course, is whether Newsom is insisting on a finish date to coincide with a widely anticipated run for president in 2028. When asked if the ribbon cutting for the new facility would be in Iowa, an early presidential primary state, members of the governor’s staff laughed, with a tacit acknowledgment that this is tied to Newsom’s ambitions.

A large open indoor space.
Warehouse space at San Quentin that is slated to be converted into an education facility as part of the prison’s transformation to a rehabilitation center. (Martin do Nascimento/KQED)

Jody Lewen, the president of Mount Tamalpais College, which runs college preparatory classes at San Quentin, has high hopes for the prison’s proposed transformation, but worries there won’t be enough space to accommodate many more students on top of the 300 already enrolled.

“I believe this whole process will be successful if the Department of Corrections and the governor’s office don’t allow themselves to be rushed, if they allow themselves a methodical planning process and they take the time that it takes to undertake something this massive,” said Lewen, who is on the council advising the prison’s transformation.

Lewen thinks the school could double or triple enrollment if the renovation is done properly, but if they rush, it’s going to be really hard to develop the plans and the vision that will ultimately support the realization of the vision everybody’s hoping will come to fruition.”

There are other huge obstacles to success, such as transforming the culture of a prison system focused largely on punishment, where there has long been strict adherence to rules, and consequences for breaking them.

Newsom says he’s inspired by the Scandinavian model, where guards and people behind bars have a much less adversarial relationship than is the norm in California prisons. But whether the powerful California Correctional Peace Officers Association — the union representing prison guards — will embrace Newsom’s vision is very much an open question.

A person in a green uniform stands in front of a chain link fence topped in barbed wire.
Officer T. Ascencio stands guard on the yard at San Quentin State Prison. (Martin do Nascimento/KQED)

“We are 100% behind the Norway project when it’s done right,” Glen Stailey, head of the CCPOA, told the LA Times earlier this year, without elaborating on what exactly that may entail.

While challenges and problems still exist at the prison, one thing is nearly certain: San Quentin’s days as the place where most death sentences in California are carried out are over.

There hasn’t been an execution since Clarence Ray Allen was put to death in 2006.

Shortly after Newsom came into office, he issued an executive order (PDF) putting a moratorium on executions, which remains in effect until he leaves office.

But Newsom will likely be long gone before the impact of his reimagined San Quentin is fully evaluated.