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Calif. begins revamping San Quentin State Prison

COs suffer from depression, PTSD and suicide at a higher rate than the average population; part of the revamp plan is to improve the prison staff’s experience


Hector Amezcua/The Sacramento Bee/TNS

By Grace Scullion
The Sacramento Bee

SACRAMENTO, Calif. — Lawmakers and activists initially balked at Gov. Gavin Newsom’s plan to use $380 million to build a “rehabilitation campus” at San Quentin, California’s oldest state prison. The proposal lacked details, they said.

But after some negotiation, the revamp is moving forward. The prison, once home to the country’s largest death row, will become the San Quentin Rehabilitation Center, part of Newsom’s push to rethink incarceration.

The complete picture still isn’t clear. But at a media tour at the prison on Wednesday some new details were revealed.

New building will expand programming, curtail waitlists

At San Quentin, inmates can get a GED or college degree. They can learn to read, code, make a podcast, film and edit videos or write in AP journalistic style — if they can get off the waitlist.

“It’s like coming to Disneyland and not getting to ride any rides,” said Warden Ron Broomfield.

Located just across the Golden Gate Bridge from San Francisco, San Quentin State Prison has never been at a loss for volunteers to staff the hundreds of educational and career programs, a spokeswoman said. But their reach is constrained by space.

For example, 250 inmates are on a waitlist for Mount Tamalpais College, a free school within San Quentin’s walls. It will likely be a year before they can win a spot in the classroom.

The new “rehabilitation campus” will provide 100,000 square feet of programming space, aiming to reduce waitlists and get more inmates into education and career programs. San Quentin spokespeople were unable to confirm just how many more people would be served in the new facility.

In California, inmates who participate in educational and vocational programs can earn sentence reductions. They’re also less likely to end back in prison post-release.

Nearly half of those released from California prisons will be reconvicted within three years, according to data from the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation (CDCR).

San Quentin’s coding academy, operated by the California Prison Industry Authority (CALPIA), offers courses in web development and programming languages and has a zero percent recidivism rate. Of the 218 graduates of the program that have left prison since 2014, none have returned to prison. CALPIA partnered with the Last Mile, a nonprofit that provides technology education to incarcerated people, to launch the course at San Quentin in 2014. Today, the program has spread to 22 prison classrooms across the country.

Inmate Alex Yohn said he spends around 30 hours a week in the coding lab. He waited two and a half months for the six-month course. In November, he’ll have his first parole hearing and will be able to show the website he has designed.

What about other California prisons?

As of July 19, San Quentin was home to 3,787 inmates — just 4% of California’s total incarcerated population, according to CDCR data.

Though the new campus will serve more inmates at San Quentin, activists say the state needs to bring the same reforms to other prisons across the state.

“San Quentin has one of the most robust set of programs in the state and some of the other prisons have very little,” said Don Specter, executive director of the Prison Law Office. “Almost all of the other prisons need it more than San Quentin.”

The investments in San Quentin “can be replicated and scaled to other institutions,” said Izzy Gardon, a spokesperson for Newsom’s office. The end goal is a “California Model” of rehabilitative incarceration used at all CDCR facilities.

California’s incarcerated population is declining after years of effort. In the 2023-24 fiscal year, CDCR will operate 15,000 open beds, the Legislative Analyst’s Office calculated.

Chair of the Assembly Budget Subcomittee on Public Safety Mia Bonta, D-Alameda, agreed to the put the San Quentin funding in the budget in exchange for a requirement that CDCR produce reports on prison capacity to help decide which prisons to close.

Committee’s focus: reeentry, housing and correctional staff

An advisory committee, led by Sacramento Mayor Darrell Steinberg, will release recommendations in December focused on three areas: reentry, inmates’ residential experience and correctional staff training.

The panel has already met three times, Steinberg said. These meetings have occurred behind closed doors, though he said at least a couple of future meetings will be open to the public.


About 46% of people released from California prisons will be reconvicted within three years, according to CDCR.

Through “normalizing life inside San Quentin,” Broomfield said, the prison hopes to make reentering society post-incarceration smoother for released inmates.

While the current vocational and educational programs reduce recidivism, the committee will focus on other kinds of reentry initiatives. The Male Community Reentry Programs, for example, allows some incarcerated men to serve the last few months of their sentences outside prison walls.

Residential experience

Two people share each 4-foot by 10-foot cell at San Quentin. Only one person can stand up in the room at a time, said Jevis Jones, a currently incarcerated man.

In developing his “California Model” of incarceration, Newsom has pointed to Norweigan prisons for inspiration. They are known for their lack of metal bars and homey aesthetic — and a much lower recidivism rate.

Steinberg said a complete overhaul and redesign of prison living quarters isn’t feasible. The committee will instead look for ways the prison can create “a more rehabilitative” living environment through design and aesthetic changes like replacing metal bars with doors.

Staff experience

“Here’s the truth: the correctional officers are suffering, too,” said Steinberg.

Correctional officers suffer from depression, PTSD and suicide at a higher rate than the average population, according to research from the Vera Institute of Justice, a research organization focused on the justice system in the United States.

This subcommittee will develop recommendations to address these issues and develop new training for correctional officers to incorporate them into the mission to transform prison into a rehabilitative place.

“A correctional officer can become that influence that changes someone’s life,” Broomfield, who is on the staff subcommittee, said. “I really want to get the correctional staff involved in rehabilitation.”

The committee will release its recommendations in a report in December. The entire project, including the rehabilitative campus, should be finished “sometime in 2025,” Steinberg said.

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