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Newsom touts prison reform with plan to turn San Quentin into rehab facility

Newsom said reforming how we incarcerate individuals is key to making sure they don't return to prison after they're released — and to making communities safer.

SAN FRANCISCO (CN) — At a press conference Friday at San Quentin State Prison on the rocky shores of Marin County north of San Francisco, California Governor Gavin Newsom laid out his plans to transform the home of the state's death row into a place to help inmates reenter society.

The 171-year-old prison — the oldest in California — is the crown jewel of the governor’s plans to overhaul the state’s prison system by focusing on rehabilitation to help inmates successfully begin life on the outside. Currently, almost two-thirds of inmates released each year in the state end up back behind bars within a few years, he told the assembled crowd of politicos, civil rights leaders, reporters and victims of crime.

Rehabilitating prisoners, Newsom said, is the best way to increase safety in the state’s communities.

“This is about asking ourselves the fundamental question, what are the community’s needs? How do we serve the community knowing that 30,000 people come out of the system every year? Are people ready to reintegrate into society? Or are they bitter?” Newsom asked. “For us, this is about real public safety. It’s about getting serious about addressing crime and violence in our state.”

Speaking from an 18,000-square-foot facility on the prison grounds, Newsom said he had requested $20 million from the Legislature to begin the design work necessary to transform the space into classrooms for programs like vocational training, which can be used to help prisoners begin the transition back into the outside world. Another step in the process: changing the name of the prison to San Quentin Rehabilitation Center.

Several state officials have visited Norway to examine how that country’s rehabilitation-focused prison system works, a model Newsom said is worthy of emulation. But when a reporter asked about the influence of the Scandinavian model, the governor stressed what he’s working on is the California model.

Asked by another reporter if he had considered simply closing San Quentin, the governor said it had been discussed but doing so would have dispersed the population and separated prisoners not only from their communities and families, but from opportunities being so close to the center of the state’s innovation centers in the Bay Area bring.

“What we’re about fundamentally is not just about reforming, but about innovation, data-driven innovation,” he said.

San Quentin has become the center of much of the effort to refocus the state’s prison system toward rehabilitation. The prison, presently home to more than 3,000 inmates including those on death row, has an extensive system of programs geared toward preparing prisoners for life on the outside, including the state’s single on-site degree program to earn a college degree operated by Tamalpais Community College.

“We’re building off the success of programs here at San Quentin,” Newsom said.

Although San Quentin is home to nearly all the state’s death row prisoners, Newsom declared a moratorium on executions in 2019 and had the gas chamber dismantled — it was last used in 1967 for the execution of Aaron Mitchell, who murdered a Sacramento police officer. There have been no executions in the state in 17 years, since Clarence Ray Allen died by lethal injection for the murder of three people in 2006.

The remaining 500 or so prisoners on death row will be sent to other prisons throughout the state.

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