California’s oldest prison to
expand focus on education,
California Gov. Gavin Newsom has announced the proposed transition of San Quentin State Prison into the San Quentin Rehabilitation Center.
The announcement came at a March 17 press conference that took place inside San Quentin State Prison and included not only journalists, but also formerly incarcerated people, state lawmakers and prison reform advocates.
Newsom said the current operation of the state’s prison system “isn’t working for anybody.” The correctional officers’ union supports the reforms.
The San Quentin Rehabilitation Center aims to provide the prison’s 3,900 general population residents with lifestyle-changing programs and skills to help them return to their communities safely and avoid recidivism, San Quentin’s Public Information Officer Lt. Guim’mara Berry said.
The planned changes “would make San Quentin the premiere rehabilitation center of the world,” Newsom said, speaking in an area of the prison that was once a furniture factory, soon to become a hub for the innovative new center.
The current system has “failed for too long” to keep the public safe, he said, referencing the nearly 50% recidivism rate for released prisoners. The reform is about “real public safety, keeping communities safe,” and getting “serious about addressing crime and violence in our state,” Newsom said.
A team of experts including victims and survivors of crime, community based organizations, formerly incarcerated and others will be tasked with doing the “design work” for the SQRC. Newsom requested that lawmakers approve the $20 million he has earmarked in his proposed 2023/24 budget towards the project, with a goal of 2025 for it to be operational.
“If San Quentin can do it, it can be done anywhere else,” Newsom said. “This is about reducing recidivism in this state, keeping people safe, and making sure that victims feel respected through that process.”
■ The faces of public safety
Californians for Safety and Justice, also known as CSJ, is one
of the organizations tasked with doing the design work for SQRC. Tinisch Hollins, its executive director, lost two brothers to gun violence and has had multiple family members serve prison sentences at San Quentin, some for decades.
“Too many times we’re in front of the podium talking about where the systems have failed, have failed our communities, have failed victims of crime, and have failed to rehabilitate or interrupt the cycles that we all want to see changed,” Hollins said.
Hollins described incarcerated people who have undergone “deep transformative work” who are prepared to “come back home” and “be part of the solution” to crime.
“They are the faces of public safety in our communities,” Hollins said. “They are the ones we call, instead of 911, when we want to defuse situations or we want to prevent crime from happening.”
Newsom emphasized that the responsibility is not just on those incarcerated, but on the community at large to “reconcile and to address these stubborn realities.”
“We are as dumb as we want to be,” he said, referring to the ongoing policies that have resulted in too many of the people who are released from state prisons ending up back behind bars within three years.
“… We perpetuate that system and we call that system, somehow public safety– orientated? Where’s the public safety in that?” Newsom said.
Newsom pointed to the roughly 50 to 80 people released from San Quentin monthly.
“Are they ready to reintegrate back in society?” he said. “Are they ready to be fully participatory in the life [in their communities]? Or are they bitter?”
Newsom said that the creation of SQRC would not be controlled by CDCR alone.
“This is the rest of government, departments, all of us growing together,” he said. That’s what makes this very, very different … We have to be in the homecoming business.”
■ Receivership continues
In 1976, California incarcerated 21,000 people in state prisons. By the time Newsom graduated from Redwood High, it was 50,000 and ballooned to 174,000 by 2006, he said.
Tinisch Hollins, executive director of Californians for
Safety and Justice, has lost multiple family members
to violence and incarceration. She believes that,
through rehabilitation, former offenders can return
to their families and communities and plan an active
role in solving the epidemic of crime and violence.
In 2011, the U.S. Supreme Court stepped in to California’s prison problems, putting the state’s medical and mental health system under federal receivership and ordering a population cap of 137.5%.
More than a decade later, most prisons are still under receivership — and the population is hovering close to the court-ordered cap. There are close to 95,000 people incarcerated in state prisons currently, with only about 85,000 bed spaces to put them in.
Despite these tensions over population caps, Newsom talked about closing more prisons and getting away from the “perversity” of private prisons. The closures, however, have not led to people getting out of prison and returning to their communities. Instead, they are being transferred to other prisons causing local overcrowding.
Newly appointed San Quentin News Editor-in-Chief Steve Brooks also pointed out that infectious diseases, like COVID-19 and the flu, aren’t going away and are still causing quarantines.
“Packing people in these poorly ventilated housing units leads to unrest and a general state of depression among residents as they try to make it through the day,” Brooks said.
“You could probably implement the Scandinavian model just by single-celling the place,” Brooks said.
■ Continued overcrowding
Brooks began with a statement before asking Gov. Newsom a multi-part question: “San Quentin is the epicenter of rehabilitation in California — how would this plan deal with the chronic overcrowding at San Quentin and living conditions, and will violent offenders now be excluded from participating in programs at San Quentin?”
The programs would be available to San Quentin’s general population, Newsom said, but he did not address the overcrowding issue.
“San Quentin has about 2,100 cells and 500 dormitory beds for the general population,” Brooks said, noting that the population of 3,900 is still growing. “Double-celling is rampant.”
San Quentin’s current programs include podcasting, newspaper/radio reporting, computer coding, audio/video engineering, construction technology, community college courses and other vocational training programs, which include things like plumbing, computer literacy and 3D drawing. The life-skills programs include drug counseling, anger management and domestic violence prevention classes.
“We have all the programs we need, but the waiting lists are up to a year long. It’s more overcrowded now than before the pandemic,” Brooks said.
The money requested in the governor’s budget is expected to help reduce the physical bottleneck in space necessary to expand rehabilitative programming and reduce waiting lists by renovating and repurposing the former furniture factory.