As this year comes to a close, we leave behind twelve notable months of historic endings at San Quentin and throughout the California prison system.
This year marks the end of secrecy in SQ prison. Maintenance crews have installed fixed-camera technology capable of capturing audio and video in all areas throughout the facility. Big brother is finally watching. Never before have all housing units, dining areas, education areas, law library, chapel, yard, canteen, and other places in the facility been monitored by dozens and dozens of surveillance cameras. This new technology will be used for investigating incidents that occur in the facility.
This year marks the end of California’s Death Row. Two clocks, two telephones, and a light green death chamber are being dismantled. Gov. Gavin Newsom said Death Row will become a “healing center.” Over 570 condemned prisoners are now being dispersed into various general population facilities throughout the state where they will be able to get prison jobs and access to educational and vocational programs. The closure of Death Row is expected to be finalized early next year.
This year also marks the end of the Covid-19 “state of emergency.” The governor announced that we no longer need masks or social distancing, no mandatory vaccines or Covid-19 tests. All programs in prison returned to normal operating procedures. Families — including children — are now able to visit their loved ones, sitting closer and embracing longer.
Volunteers have also been allowed to reenter the prisons after almost three years to restart their rehabilitative groups.
We are also witnessing the historic end of San Quentin as an infamous prison. On March 17, Gov. Newsom came to SQ and announced that the facility will be transformed into a rehabilitation center in 2024. This will include the construction of a new state-of-the-art rehabilitation building and the implementation of the new “California Model,” which focuses on better relationships between staff and incarcerated people, and centers rehabilitation.
Following Newsom’s announcement, CDCR Secretary Jeffrey Macomber and CCHCS Receiver J. Clark Kelso issued a joint memorandum to their respective staffs entitled, “The California Model: Changing lives one conversation at a time.” They named four pillars that will serve as the foundation for the new model: dynamic security, normalization, peer-support, and becoming a trauma-informed organization. This new foundation will eventually spread to all California prisons.
Finally, this year marks the end of incarcerated people using traditional phone booths to call their loved ones from SQ. After receiving the GTL tablets, we can use the phone on the go and are no longer constrained by the housing unit wall phone. We can text, video chat, watch movies, play games, and use other necessary services at our fingertips.
Here at SQ and across California, the culture in prison is slowly beginning to shift from punishment to rehabilitation.
In May, incarcerated people and staff played an exciting new game called Pickle Ball, introduced by enthusiast Roger BelAir. Even the warden came out to play, diving into the net. A dog program was introduced at SQ, where incarcerated handlers now take turns raising puppies to become service dogs. Honor living units have been springing up, allowing incarcerated people to live in clean, quiet communities in single cells fixed up for their comfort.
In September, a new phenomenon of Norwegian-styled wooden gazebos were placed on the Lower Yard at San Quentin. In November, a historic basketball game between staff and incarcerated people took place which ended in hugs, handshakes, and promises to keep bridging the gap.
What’s next for SQ and other California prisons in 2024 is anybody’s guess. Our hope and resolution is that we continue on a trajectory of change for the better. So many historic firsts have happened. Several institutions have been taking the initiative to change their culture inside to help facilitate the new California Model.
We hope this new year brings many of the same rehabilitation programs and opportunities here at SQ to incarcerated people across the state and beyond.