During his tour of California in March, Gov. Gavin Newsom announced plans to transform San Quentin State Prison from a maximum security facility into a center focused on rehabilitation. 

San Quentin is California’s oldest prison, built in 1852. It initially opened with 68 inmates and originally housed both men and women until a women’s prison was built in Tehachapi in 1933. 

Over the years, San Quentin has imprisoned some of California’s most notorious criminals.

The facility, known as “The Bastille by the Bay,” was home to the nation’s largest death row, until Newsom put a moratorium on executions in 2019. 

Tinisch Hollins, executive director of Californians for Safety and Justice, was at San Quentin when the governor made his announcement. She spoke about the planned transformation with “Inside the Issues” host Alex Cohen. 

“The idea is that this expansion would allow more folks who are housed in San Quentin to have the opportunity to participate in full rehabilitative services and really make it a place that’s centered on preparing people to come home well,” Hollins said.

As part of the transformation, death row inmates will be transferred out of San Quentin and to other maximum security facilities. Newsom’s 2023-24 budget proposal sets aside $20 million for the plan.

Hollins said there are still details being worked out such as who will be able to participate — but that it’s important to note participation in these programs will not reduce an inmate’s sentence. 

“The idea behind this is that while people are being held accountable for crimes they may have committed, that they’re also having the opportunity to deal with mental health, prepare for employment, education, deal with addiction or other issues that they may be challenged with, and have a plan to come home and in reenter society in a safe way,” she said.

The prison system in Norway has been cited as a model for the rehabilitation focus at San Quentin. The country has some of the lowest rates of recidivism in the world.

Hollins says decades of evidence shows that tough on crime approaches don’t always make a community more safe.

“We have a system that has failed to deliver on safety because the way that we’re defining safety and the way that we’re defining justice is too narrow,” she said. “The way that we should be looking at safety is not just the absence or reduction in crime is the increase of wellbeing.”

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