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Published on March 04, 2024
San Quentin's $240 Million Revamp to Focus on Rehabilitation, End Death Row in CaliforniaSource: Staunited, CC BY-SA 3.0, via Wikimedia Commons

San Quentin, the notorious California state prison, is gearing up for a transformation worth millions, officials announced. NBC Bay Area reports that demolition is set to begin in spring as part of a $240 million initiative to turn the high-security facility into a rehabilitation and educational center.

The plan, reminiscent of Governor Gavin Newsom's budget priorities from last year, comes with a hefty price tag initially estimated at $360 million. But the Reimagining San Quentin advisory council believes it can slash costs by one-third, "That they can still build a mini vocational training campus," Sacramento Mayor Darrell Steinberg explained to ABC7 News. Steinberg, who co-chaired the council, broke down their priorities, including reducing the prison population to facilitate a more personalized rehabilitation approach.

Not only will the population shrink, but the council is also pushing an end to death row. James King from the Ella Baker Center for Human Rights told ABC7 News, "Yes, with the caveat that some people who are on death row may want to stay at San Quentin and we support people's autonomy in where they feel the best path towards rehabilitation lies." Nevertheless, Cat Brooks of the Anti-Police-Terror Project criticized the plan, highlighting the dungeon-like conditions and infrastructure issues and advocating for increased focus on preventing incarceration.

But it's not just about the brick and mortar; the makeover includes a cultural shift within the guard staff. The San Quentin Transformation Advisory Council suggests guards should ask inmates about their families, report positive behavior, and even share a meal or watch movies together. An unnamed correction department official quipped in the council's report, "We train staff like they are going to war. We’re not going to war. We have to change the training," according to CalMatters.

The transformative agenda aims to model the success seen in Scandinavian prisons, where a focus on rehabilitation has drastically reduced recidivism rates. Although the specifics are still in the air, inspiration stems from Norway's approach emphasizing freedom and normalcy inside the prison walls. Despite the push for change, financial constraints and concerns over inmate conditions continue to challenge the overhaul. Policymakers are juggling these competing priorities, "Policymakers will be grappling with these tradeoffs," the advisory committee stated. Meanwhile, the locals are also playing their part; as NBC Bay Area notes, nonprofit groups like Humans of San Quentin seek to collect stories from inmates, leveraging social media for healing.