A cell block last used as overflow housing for Death Row has been transformed into an honor unit for disciplinary-free residents of San Quentin.
The purpose of the “Earned Living Unit” is to incentivize prison residents to participate in rehabilitative programming and stay out of trouble. The first residents moved into the new ELU, the Donner section of the Q’s South Block, to find conditions unlike any other housing unit they had ever lived in.
“I can breathe easier,” said Michael Callahan. “The first thing I noticed was the clean air,” especially compared with the dusty, smoky, stale air in his old block.
Callahan said the cleaner, quieter environment, increased phone access and individual showers bring peace of mind. He moved in with a cellmate but hopes to get a single-occupancy cell. That’s the biggest incentive for many who sign up to move in. But it’s not enough just to sign up.
“Your spot on the waiting list is dependent on your ability to stay involved in programs and stay disciplinary free,” read the response to one person’s request to move in.
Not everyone wants to move. Many prefer to stay in the other blocks because their jobs or friends are there, or because they don’t want the added scrutiny or stigma of living in an honor unit.
Inside the ELU, within a month, the first residents created a list of expectations for the newly forming community. Guideline number one: “Any music or noise within your cell shall be kept at a level that does not allow other cell occupants to hear it.”
Other guidelines included expectations to keep cells clean, remain violence free, and “respect both staff and fellow inmates as you yourself wish to be respected.” They also prohibit blocking visual inspection into cells, illicit drug use and sexual behavior. Those are already CDCR regulations. The difference in the ELU is that these residents are now making a commitment to each other to create a positive environment or move out.
“We already kicked out five or six,” said Sgt. Steadler, giving an orientation to the new arrivals in March. One guy had a tattoo needle, and another had cell phone contraband.
“If you’re not sure about something, come talk to us,” Steadler said. “We want that relationship and we can talk through 99% of the problems. Lt. Haub and I both have an open door policy.”
Haub called Donner ELU “the model of what East Block is going to become.” Converting East Block into another ELU is part of former SQ Warden Ron Broomfield and Gov. Newsom’s $20 million plan to continue transforming the prison into an innovative rehabilitation center.
Broomfield and Newsom talked and shook hands with the residents of the new Donner ELU when they visited in February to see their plan in action. CDCR has begun their planned transfer of all residents of East Block, currently Death Row, to other prisons. “The state wants this program to succeed,” Haub said. “The administration does. We do too. We want you to succeed.”
Haub said he knew of eight guys who had received parole dates since moving into the Donner ELU. One of them is Wyatt McMillian, one of the first to move in when the unit opened in October.
“I was a screw up,” said McMillian, who spent more than three decades in prison. He said he had worked hard to change and had not been involved in any violence since 2010.
“I earned this,” he said, crediting the less crowded, more respectful culture to helping him rehabilitate and better prepare for his sixth parole board hearing.
McMillian was found suitable for parole in November. “The difference was me,” he said. “I was able to prepare peacefully, connect the dots, and get past that last bit of shame.” He was released from prison in April.