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California to redo San Quentin prison, emphasizing rehabilitation

Visiting San Quentin, California’s oldest prison that was once home to a gas chamber used to execute inmates on the nation’s largest death row, Governor Gavin Newsom on Friday touted a plan to reform facilities in favor of a rehabilitation-focused approach that could become a model. around the world.

The facility will be renamed the San Quentin Rehabilitation Center and the more than 500 inmates serving death sentences there will be transferred elsewhere in the California prison system. The prison houses more than 2,000 inmates with minor sentences.

“We want to be the preeminent restorative justice facility in the world, that’s the goal,” Newsom said from an on-site warehouse that will house his planned programs. “San Quentin is iconic, San Quentin is world famous. If San Quentin can do it, it can be done anywhere else.”

Despite Newsom’s ambitious tone, he offered few concrete details about what the new system would look like and who it would serve. It was unclear how far the plan would go to reimagine a prison once home to California’s most notorious criminals, such as Charles Manson, and the site of violent riots in the 1960s and ’70s.

But it has also become known for its innovative programs where inmates can earn a degree, write for an award-winning newspaper, study the arts, and receive job training to prepare for reintegration into society.

A group made up of public safety experts, crime victims and formerly incarcerated people will advise the state on the transformation, which Newsom hopes to complete by 2025. He is allocating $20 million to launch the plan.

The move by Newsom, who recently began his second term, follows his 2019 moratorium on executions, which drew criticism from some who argued he was neglecting the will of voters who in 2016 upheld the death penalty at the polls.

Between 2020 and 2022, more than 100 death row inmates were transferred from San Quentin to other prisons under a state pilot program. The state spends about $326 million running San Quentin annually, and the Newsom administration did not say whether the new approach would save money.

The latest plan is part of a decades-long transformation of the state’s sprawling prison system, which went into federal receivership in 2005 after a court found that prison medical care was so poor it amounted to cruel and egregious punishment. unusual. A panel of judges later ordered the state to drastically reduce the prison population due to overcrowding.

About 800 people are released from San Quentin each year, with the goal being to prevent them from committing another crime and ending up back in the system, Newsom said.

San Quentin inmate Juan Moreno Haines said the plan will help ensure taxpayer money is spent to end the ongoing cycle of recidivism.

“I’ll ask Californians: What do you want?” he said. “Do you want them to come out of prison better rehabilitated with skills, or do you want them to come out worse than they were to continually feed this model of crime?”

Newsom’s office cited Norway’s approach to imprisonment, which focuses on preparing people to return to society, as a model. Officials from the state Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation toured Norwegian prisons in 2019, where they noted the positive interactions between inmates and staff. Oregon and North Dakota have also been inspired by the policies of the Scandinavian country.

In Norwegian maximum-security prisons, cells are often more like dormitories with additional furniture such as chairs, desks and even televisions, and inmates have access to the kitchen. Norway has a low rate of people who reoffend after being released from prison.

As of 2015, two-thirds of people convicted of felonies in California were re-arrested within two years of their release, according to A study by the California Public Policy Institute. Newsom said efforts to lower that rate will boost public safety.

Success will be determined “on the basis of people’s willingness and commitment to change themselves, change their attitudes, and become positive contributing citizens when they return to the community. We need to help support people on that path,” she said.

The Prison Law Office, a public interest law firm that filed the 2001 lawsuit over California prison health care, has advocated this approach for prisons and has led tours of European correctional facilities for US lawmakers. On a 2011 trip to prisons in Germany and the Netherlands, Donald Specter, chief executive of the law firm, said he was surprised to see that they were “much more humane” than prisons in his country.

“While I was there, I thought, ‘My God, we should try to import this philosophy into the United States,’” he said.

Critics of Newsom’s ad said it follows the continued prioritization of people who have committed crimes over victims.

“We are in a climate where it is all about the offenders and criminals and not the innocent victims who have been victimized, traumatized, harmed: family members who are devastated living without their loved ones because they were killed and taken away. too soon. said Patricia Wenskunas, executive director of the Crime Survivors Resource Center.

Amber-Rose Howard, executive director of Californians United for a Responsible Budget, a group focused on reducing the prison population, is not convinced that a “Norwegian model” will work in the United States since the two countries have very different histories.

“Newsom should keep up with closing more prisons, with implementing policies that have been passed that would reduce incarceration and bring people home,” he said.

Speakers joining Newsom said they hoped to build on a number of already successful programs at San Quentin. The prison is home to the first accredited junior college in the country that is completely behind bars and offers classes in literature, astronomy and US government. The inmates recorded and produced the hugely popular “Ear Hustle” podcast while serving time.

Phil Melendez, a former inmate at San Quentin who now works with the advocacy group Smart Justice California, said the rehabilitation programs the state hopes to expand will prepare formerly incarcerated people for success when they re-enter society.

“During the course of (my) time here, I found a new sense of hope,” Meléndez said in prison. “I found healing.”