San Quentin State Prison’s transition from a General Population (GP) facility to a non-designated programming facility has uncovered old prejudices and uncommon collaborations.
The inmate response to the new housing designation is as diverse as the prison population.
Most inmates have been indifferent to the inflow of newcomers, while others have been cautious and alert.
Some prisoners transferred out of San Quentin because they did not want to deal with the unknown.
Few inmates, and administrators, could predict what was going to happen when GP inmates and Sensitive Needs Yard (SNY) inmates were united into one community.
“Some people that are here at San Quentin are old-timers, and they have a hard time changing their perspective about people,” said Anthony A., a former gang member, “I think it’s because the past is all they have.”
Most of the new arrivals are former gang members who decided to make a change in their lives’ direction; their decision is also making a difference in the prison.
Although the majority of the population remains race and gang segregated, the newcomers have formed a multicultural group of prisoners.
“What to outsiders looks like sheer depravity is understood to preserve order, and protect the group,” Prison University Project says Jody Lewen of the in the Spring 2018 Newsletter Volume 13, No.1
“Whenever someone shows up off the bus, we try to embrace them because whether people are active or drop-outs from a gang—everyone is uncomfortable when they arrive,” Michael R. said. “I want to give these guys the opportunity I didn’t have when I first came to prison.”
San Quentin offers the same opportunities and programs as before but as a non-designated programming facility, there is zero tolerance for prison politics and gang activity.
“We are creating a system where the inmate is treated as an individual”
“I decided to drop out of the gang because I didn’t want to catch a life sentence,” said Sergio C., a former Bay Area gang member. “My supposed homeboys told me I had to stab somebody and get caught with the knife. I think my life is worth more than those kinds of friends.”
Many of the new arrivals say that in order to prove their loyalty, gang members are expected to do things that could earn them extra prison time, in some cases even a life sentence.
“I thought a lot about what I wanted for myself before I decided to step away from the gang lifestyle,” Michael R. said. “When I talked to my wife and my children, I knew I couldn’t do this prison stuff anymore.”
Michael, Anthony and others are helping steer new arrivals into programs, education, and introspection.
The California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation (CDCR) has received some criticism for its shift in housing policies that to outsiders seems arbitrary.
“According to a RAND analysis, every $1 invested in such [inmate] education generates at least $4 in economic return,” reports Fast Company.
Earlier this year, the CDCR outlined its methods to curb prison-gang influence and promote rehabilitation through the implementation of non-designated programming facilities and Restrictive Custody General Population (RCGP) yards.
“These non-designated yards are the long-needed solution to our problems,” Sergio C. said. “Before, I was too busy trying to keep up with yard politics and fighting for our fair share of state property, so I didn’t focus on preparing for release and staying out, I ended up coming back.”
In April, Scott Kernan, Secretary of the CDCR, wrote in the Secretary’s Corner that significant criminal justice reforms that provide incentives for rehabilitation have also given the department an opportunity to expect more from offenders.
“We are creating a system where the inmate is treated as an individual, and with that change we have to expect conformance to behavioral standards just like in the community,” Kernan wrote.
Most of the new arrivals at San Quentin are taking advantage of the available opportunities.
“I’ve never seen a prison like this,” said Mario, a Hispanic from southern California, who decided to stay. “I was planning to leave because of what my homies might think, but then I thought I better get my life in order instead of worrying about what others think.”