San Quentin’s proposed transformation is about public safety

Written by Amy Ta, produced by Bennett Purser

San Quentin State Prison, located in California’s Marin County, is iconic nationwide. Photo by Shutterstock.

On Friday, Gov. Gavin Newsom unveiled a plan to transform the state’s oldest prison — San Quentin in Marin County — into a rehabilitation center, one inspired by prisons in Scandinavian countries like Norway. The idea is to make San Quentin a place that fosters good behavior, rather than enforce punishment. Other U.S. prisons have experimented with similar models, but not to the scale Newsom imagines for San Quentin.

This facility, where Charles Manson stayed on death row, is iconic nationwide and holds meaning in the American psyche, says Anita Chabria, a columnist for the LA Times who’s been covering the issue. 

She adds that it’s the state’s most progressive prison because it’s located in a wealthy urban area, so it’s been able to create more opportunities and programming for incarcerated people there, such as a tennis team, newspaper, and junior college.

She says Newsom’s transformation plan is complicated, so to better understand, she visited Pennsylvania State Correctional Institution at Chester, which is now a rehab center. 

“It was just a completely different model of incarceration, and one that really focused on how guards and the inmates interact,” she explains. “So right now in our prison system, there is a hard line between prisoners and guards. They're not supposed to fraternize, they don't really interact. It's about control. And in Chester and in the Scandinavian model, that gets flipped on its head. And the guards really are more about being mentors. And so they're the direct connect to services and help. They sit down and have meals with them. … They have a relationship with those people.”

She adds that at Chester, people were chosen via lottery to participate in the program. The system is not a reward for good behavior, but it sends the message that everyone, regardless of their crime, can be successful. 

One person she spoke to at Chester was Luis (Chabria says Pennsylvania prison rules prevent her from using his last name). He was convicted on a murder charge at age 16, and given a life sentence without the possibility of parole. As he was behind bars, he participated in a dog training program and turned around his life. 

“It's just a calmer place. … There's exercise equipment, there's telephones so that he can be in contact with his son, who he had when he was 14. He's able to work with the guards and work on getting job training and things like that. And he really feels like this has given him the opportunity that when he gets out, he will have both the social, emotional, and job skills to be successful and to not return to prison.”

This system is primarily about communities and public safety, Chabria emphasizes, so people who leave can become “good neighbors” and not re-commit crimes and “create more victims.” 

“The vast majority of people who go into prison are going to come out again. They're there on crimes that are not mass shootings or don't involve harming children or things like that. So they're coming back out to our communities, whether you like it or not. And it has to be, in my opinion, a public safety conversation. Do you want them to come out with the skills and the opportunities that they have an option other than crime? Or do you believe that prison should just be ongoing suffering, and they come out like they went in, or maybe worse, and the chips fall where they fall? And I think that that's something we have to look at beyond the crime a lot of times, and look at what's best for our communities.”

Meanwhile, the union representing corrections officers is in favor of this proposal. Chabria talked to guards in Pennsylvania and elsewhere, and says the suicide rates for them is 39% higher than all other professions. 

“They're under more stress when they retire. They have shorter lifespans after retirement than other professions. This is not a job that is treating its workforce well. And so the prison guards union looks at this and sees not just a way perhaps to do greater public safety, but to change the job for corrections guards in a way that will help them to have better outcomes and better futures.”

This is both a cultural shift and major infrastructure/construction project, she points out, and it’s more of an aspiration than an actual plan, so the transformation could happen in 2025 or later.