Collaboration is key
Anybody who has ever seen a Norwegian prison will probably think it is unimaginable that such a thing could take place at San Quentin. Officers dressed in khaki pants and dress shirts, clean buildings and beautiful landscapes with few incarcerated people, is not something that is easy to picture at California’s oldest and most infamous facility.
I’d love to have access to single-celled living quarters, plants, fish tanks, puppies, personalized meals and private visits with family. But this seems like nothing less than a fantasy.
“It’s like I’m in some sort of weird dream,” said Jody Lewen, president of Mount Tamalpais College, as she watched Gov. Gavin Newsom’s press conference where he announced his plans for San Quentin.
From my own perspective as an incarcerated person, I wake up every day to my current reality of prison overcrowding and dangerous living conditions. On the other side of the coin, every day San Quentin’s officers walk into an environment filled with uncertainty. Some of them feel subject to constant threat. It makes them particularly anxious when they anticipate a “Norwegian-styled” prison, which in their minds is a potentially nightmarish scenario.
San Quentin currently houses more than 4,000 people, and it would be impossible to enact the envisioned California Model with the prison so densely populated. In addition, not all incarcerated people are well suited to live in such a unique carceral environment — one designed and focused on preparing its residents to go home. But there is a way to move forward.
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. These are; dynamic security, normalization, peer support, and becoming a trauma-informed organization. It’s a good start.
But as far as people in blue are concerned, the California Model cannot exist without officer buy-in. It is among the officers and the incarcerated population that these conversations have to begin. The voices of those in blue are just as vital to the process of imagining the new model as are the voices of those in green.
Incarcerated people I’ve talked to believe that the prison’s population must be lower, with a cap at no more than 100% of design capacity. Many of us want the option of single-celled housing. We want to live in a therapeutic environment where officers are educated, trauma-informed, dressed casually, and as much as possible, interact with the incarcerated population in a courteous and respectful manner.
We would like to have access to better food rich in fruits and vegetables, and to be able to buy many of the healthy, packaged vendor products that are currently available only to female prisoners.
We want full time assignments to rehabilitation programming, with access to education, and training in job skills and financial literacy.
Our ideal would be to work collaboratively with officers in the development of our parole plans. In return, many of us are willing to listen to what the officers need from us in the interest of working together to create a healthy, shared environment.
For far too long prison culture has been about violence, bloodshed, fear, heartache and pain. We have had to exist in a hyper-vigilant state of “fight, flight or freeze” without rest. It has caused us all tremendous stress, anxiety, depression, and PTSD. At his press conference, the governor said that 10% of CDCR’s officers either attempt suicide at some point, or at least think about it during their careers.
“We need the warning label, like with cigarettes,” retired California Corrections Officer Stephen B. Walker told Kaia Stern, co-founder of the Prison Studies Project. “This is hazardous to your health. I’m slowly being poisoned over a 35-year period and nobody tells me.”
The buy-in for guards is that a therapeutic environment benefits them as well as the incarcerated. Current prison environments negatively impact the health and life expectancy of both groups. We have to work together to change that. It will be up to the people living and working inside San Quentin to bring the California Model of rehabilitation to fruition, regardless of any foundational pillars established by CDCR.