SACRAMENTO, Calif. — The infamous state prison in San Francisco Bay that has been home to the largest death row population in the United States will be transformed into a holding cell where less dangerous prisoners receive education, training and rehabilitation, California officials announced Thursday.
Inmates serving death sentences at San Quentin State Prison will be transferred to another part of California’s prison system, Gov. Gavin Newsom’s office announced, renaming it the San Quentin Rehabilitation Center. Most of the nearly 700 California inmates facing such sentences are incarcerated at the facility, though some have already been transferred.
“Today, we take the next step in our quest for true rehabilitation, justice, and safer communities through this evidence-backed investment, creating a new model of safety and justice, the California Model, that will guide the nation.” Newsom said in a statement.
The governor planned a visit Friday to San Quentin, which is also the site in California where inmates were once executed, though none have been executed since 2006. Newsom announced a moratorium on executions in 2019 and dismantled the gas chamber. prison, and in 2022 announced plans to begin transferring death row inmates to other prisons.
Full details of the plan were not immediately made public, though authorities said the facility would focus on “education, rehabilitation and breaking cycles of crime.” Newsom was expected to share more during his visit, the second stop on a four-day political tour he is doing in lieu of a traditional State of the State address this year.
Newsom’s office cited Norway’s approach to incarceration, which focuses on preparing people to return to society, as inspiration for the program. 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 extra furniture like chairs, desks, even TVs, and inmates have access to the kitchen and activities like basketball. The nation has a low recidivism rate.
In the revamped San Quentin, vocational training programs would prepare people to get high-paying jobs as plumbers, electricians or truckers after they are released, Newsom told the Los Angeles Times.
A group made up of public safety experts, crime victims and former inmates will advise the state on the transformation. Newsom is allocating $20 million to launch the plan.
Republican Assemblyman Tom Lackey criticized Newsom’s criminal justice priorities, saying the governor and state Democratic lawmakers should spend more time focusing their efforts on supporting crime victims.
“Communities win when we have rehabilitation efforts, but still, what about the victims?” said the footman. “Have we rehabilitated them?”
Meanwhile, Taina Vargas, executive director of Initiate Justice Action, a Los Angeles-based advocacy group, said she’s pleased the state is moving toward rehabilitating incarcerated people, but more drastic changes are needed to transform the system. of criminal justice that incarcerates so many people.
“In the long term, I think we want to keep people from going to prison in the first place, which means we want to provide more good-paying job opportunities in the community,” he said.
California voters confirmed the death penalty in 2016 and voted to speed up executions. Newsom’s decision to detain them in one of his first major acts as governor drew swift pushback from critics, including district attorneys, who said he was ignoring voters.
But Californians have also supported easing certain criminal penalties in an attempt to reduce mass incarceration as part of a more recent move away from the heavy-handed crime policies that once dominated the state.
San Quentin is the oldest correctional institution in California and is home to a maximum security cell block, a medium security dormitory, and a minimum security fire station.
Inmates on death row will not have their sentences changed, but will be transferred to other facilities, according to Newsom’s office. Today there are 668 inmates serving death sentences in California, almost all of them men, according to the state Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation.
The prison has housed high-profile criminals including cult leader Charles Manson, convicted murderers and serial killers, and was the scene of violent uprisings in the 1960s and 1970s.
But the prison in exclusive Marin County north of San Francisco has also been home to some of the most innovative inmate programs in the country, reflecting the Bay Area’s politically liberal beliefs.
Among other such programs, San Quentin is home to Mount Tamalpais College, the first accredited junior college in the country to be completely behind bars. The school offers inmates classes in literature, astronomy, US government, and others leading to an Associate of Arts degree.
The university’s $5 million annual budget is funded by private donations with faculty volunteering from top nearby universities, including Stanford and the University of California, Berkeley.
Sophie Austin is a staff member of the Associated Press/Report for America Statehouse News Initiative. Report for America is a nonprofit national service program that places journalists in local newsrooms to report on covert issues. Follow Austin on Twitter: @sophieadanna