Calif. budgets $380M to reform San Quentin State Prison
A portion of the prison will be turned into a rehabilitation center in the style of Scandinavian correctional facilities
By Lindsey Holden
The Sacramento Bee
SACRAMENTO, Calif. — California Gov. Gavin Newsom was able to wrest budget dollars from skeptical lawmakers for his plan to reform San Quentin State Prison — but the spending plan does not commit to closing more facilities, as some Democrats wanted.
Newsom will get about $380 million to turn a portion of the Marin County prison into a rehabilitation center in the style of Scandinavian correctional facilities, which emphasize services and support over a punitive model. The governor has been touting this proposal since he unveiled it during his State of the State tour in March.
Newsom wants to tear down one of the prison’s buildings and turn it into an educational and and vocational space by 2025. The largest chunk of funding — $360.6 million — will be in the form of bond money, and $20 million will come from the general fund.
The governor’s proposal is still in its early phases, and lawmakers initially balked at funding a project so light on details.
“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-Alameda, who chairs the Assembly Budget Subcommittee on Public Safety, in May.
The placeholder budget lawmakers approved on June 15 contained only $20 million for planning costs. But the budget deal Newsom and Senate and Assembly leaders announced on Monday has the full amount the governor requested.
More transparency on prison closures
The budget agreement does not commit to a specific number of prison closures. However, it does say the Legislature intends to shut down more facilities and requires the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation to produce a report on prison capacity and housing needs to inform future closure decisions.
A preliminary report is due on Aug. 15, and CDCR should release a final report by Nov. 15.
California has been moving away from mass incarceration for about 15 years. A panel of federal judges in 2009 ordered the state to reduce prison overcrowding, which was the result of decades of harsh sentencing laws.
Voter-approved initiatives and new laws shifted some inmates to county jails and reduced sentences for lower-level crimes. They also increased opportunities for inmates to shave sentences by exhibiting good behavior and participating in rehabilitation programs.
In addition, the COVID-19 pandemic forced the CDCR to cut its population as a public health measure.
As a result, California’s incarcerated population has dropped dramatically — from about 163,000 in 2006 to about 94,000, according to CDCR data from June 28.
The smaller population and potential for cost savings has motivated lawmakers and Newsom to push for more closures.
The Legislative Analyst’s Office in February said CDCR will operate 15,000 empty prison beds during the 2023-2024 fiscal year and will likely have 20,000 by 2027.
Democrats want more prisons shut down
Newsom’s administration has moved to close three prisons during his time as governor. The state shuttered Deuel Vocational Institution in Tracy in 2021, and CDCR is in the process of closing California Correctional Center in Lassen County.
The governor in December announced the state would close Chuckwalla Valley State Prison in Riverside County by 2025, as well as several prison yards.
But some Democratic lawmakers want to see Newsom’s administration close even more prisons.
Assembly Democrats in May released a budget plan that suggested shutting down five additional facilities by 2027.
Bonta said on Monday she still wants more transparency around the governor’s San Quentin proposal and a discussion about the empty prison beds.
She is more comfortable with Newsom’s plan because of the required CDCR report on prison conditions, as the agency has not previously shared the criteria it uses to select facilities for closure.
Bonta said she also was able to gain more information about Newsom’s San Quentin proposal from Sacramento Mayor Darrell Steinberg, who is leading an advisory council that will direct reform efforts.
“Now we have the requirement that CDCR will be putting forward an infrastructure plan that will be more deliberate,” Bonta said. “And they’ll reveal their methodology for which institutions they’re about to close. So for me, that commitment, as well as the overall commitment to still invest in rehabilitative programming across the system, are the two things that were of concern to me.”
Advocates push prison alternatives
Criminal justice reform advocates support additional closures and remain unconvinced the governor’s San Quentin reforms will improve inmates’ lives.
James King, co-director of programs for the Ella Baker Center for Human Rights, said he was surprised lawmakers agreed to give Newsom the money for his San Quentin proposal, given a critical LAO report on the project that came out in May.
King, a former San Quentin inmate, said conditions at the prison are “horrible,” and the governor’s project does nothing to address them. He also has questions about what the reforms mean for other correctional facilities — whether they will also see similar efforts and how it will affect them financially.
King would rather see the money spent on “creating alternatives to incarceration,” such as community-based programming to prevent crime, along with re-entry services to help inmates transition back into society.
“You can throw hundreds of millions of dollars at prison expansion and prison construction and create these new spaces,” King said. “But the larger question that has yet to be addressed is, how are you going to change the culture among the guards?
“How are you going to reimagine their training?” King added. “How are you going to create the conditions that make just a higher quality of life or better living conditions for people who are who are currently incarcerated? And I don’t know that any of those questions have been addressed yet.”
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