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Council suggests turning San Quentin into facility modeled after Norwegian prisons

The council suggests retraining corrections officers, reducing inmate numbers for individual cells, enhancing staff amenities and creating re-entry beds for post-release transition

San Quentin State Prison

Inmates exercise outside in the yard at San Quentin State Prison on Wednesday, July 26, 2023. In March 2023, Gov. Newsom announced a plan to transform the prison into the San Quentin Rehabilitation Center. The transformation is being guided by a team of correctional, reentry and rehabilitation experts.

Paul Kitagaki Jr./TNS

By Lindsey Holden
The Sacramento Bee

SACRAMENTO, Calif. — One of California Gov. Gavin Newsom’s top 2023 budget priorities involved securing millions to construct a rehabilitation space at San Quentin State Prison. A high-level advisory council tasked with helping the governor has a different idea.

The San Quentin Advisory Council released a report on Friday with more than 150 pages detailing a vision for turning the maximum-security Marin County penitentiary into a facility modeled after Norwegian prisons that push services and support over punishment.

The council recommends the governor scale back a $380 million plan to convert an existing 81,000-square-foot space, Building 38, into an education center. Newsom’s administration asked for $20 million for operations and $360.6 million in bond money to create the facility.

The report suggests cutting the $360.6 million by at least one-third and using the extra money to pay for other infrastructure projects, including improvements to housing, family visitation areas and gathering spaces.

The governor’s office did not respond to questions about the advisory council’s Building 38 recommendations, instead providing a statement expressing gratitude to members.

“I’d like to thank the San Quentin Advisory Council and its co-chairs for this tremendous undertaking,” Newsom said in the statement. “California is at the forefront of innovation and groundbreaking transformation as we reimagine San Quentin to better serve our state — and improve public safety.”

Sacramento Mayor Darrell Steinberg, who co-chaired the council, suggested the administration could recapture $120 million from the Building 38 project, plus the additional $20 million Newsom requested for operations costs.

This is especially important to the council because California’s government is facing a $68 billion budget gap, leaving few extra state dollars to spare. Newsom will present his budget proposal by Jan. 10.

“We just think that $360 million for a single building, that could be done differently,” Steinberg said. “And recognizing the fiscal situation, at least in the short term, freeing up $140 million to begin prioritizing these other needed capital changes strikes the right balance.”

Changing California incarceration

Newsom’s plan to reform San Quentin was one of his 2023 State of the State goals. He announced his initiative in March, saying he hoped the 3,447-inmate prison could “be a model for the nation, a model for the world.”

He proposed renaming the facility the “San Quentin Rehabilitation Center” and moving death row inmates to other prisons throughout the state. Newsom planned to use the advisory council’s recommendations to develop the prison into a rehabilitation-focused facility that he could hold up as a model for the rest of California’s penitentiaries by 2025.

The council’s primary suggestions include providing all residents with rehabilitation and re-entry plans, retraining correctional officers, reducing the prison population to allow inmates their own cells, improving staff housing and work space and creating re-entry beds to help transition inmates to a post-release life.

The report does not contain cost estimates outside of the money for Building 38. David Bond of the Amity Foundation, who also served as a council co-chair, said the state could accomplish some of the recommendations on a short-term basis, while other would take longer to implement.

Newsom’s proposal comes after the state spent 15 years changing its sentencing and prison policies in response to severe overcrowding issues. A panel of federal judges in 2009 ordered California to reduce its inmate population, which resulted in legislation and ballot measures changing harsh sentencing policies from the 1980s and 1990s and shifting some prisoners to county jails.

The state’s prison population gradually declined following this shift. The California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation also released a significant number of inmates during the COVID-19 pandemic in an attempt to prevent virus transmission.

As a result, the Newsom administration has begun to close prisons, which saves the state a significant amount of money. The governor has closed or started the process of closing three facilities and a handful of prison yards.

San Quentin plan lacked key details

Many Democratic lawmakers have wanted to see Newsom close more prisons. They were less enthusiastic about providing money for his San Quentin plan, which contained few details before the report’s release.

The Legislative Analyst’s Office in May criticized the governor’s administration for laying out an incomplete proposal that did not show goals, the full scope of the project or potential operating costs.

Lawmakers involved in the budget process called the information shortage “insulting,” as they were expected to approve funding for a project they knew little about.

“I just want to be clear that I don’t think that the role of the Legislature is to green-light a proposal without any ability to be able to weigh in,” said Assemblywoman Mia Bonta, D- Oakland, during a hearing about the San Quentin plan.

Lawmakers eventually approved Newsom’s funding, with assurances that CDCR would provide a report on prison conditions and the criteria it uses to make decisions about facility closures.

Criminal justice reform advocates were not supportive of the San Quentin plan, saying they would prefer to see California spend more money on re-entry services and community-based violence prevention efforts.

The advisory council acknowledges they face a possible dilemma. Reforming prison conditions will mean the California needs to spend more money on prisons, but that’s something advocates do not want to see.

“But reducing funds also means that people who are still incarcerated will not have increased access to more programming or improved, less dehumanizing environments,” the report said. “Many consider it unethical to keep people incarcerated without immediately investing in creating more humane environments and interactions in prisons.”

The council does not make funding recommendations, but it is clear the strategies it its report would require a significant investment of state money.

Bond of the Amity Foundation, who also served as a council co-chair, emphasized the importance of good community and prison services. The Amity Foundation provides programming at 19 California prisons to help inmates prepare for release.

“Really look at it as both parts,” Bond said. “You can’t wait until somebody is already back in the community to start investing in rehabilitation and their re-entry. You have to start that process inside. So it requires an investment on the inside, as well as on the outside.”

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