Big news regarding San Quentin today: Gov. Newsom announced a complete reorganization of San Quentin as a rehabilitation and training center, along the lines of Scandinavian prisons. Nigel Duara of CalMatters reports:
Gov. Gavin Newsom is expected to say that the state will spend $20 million to begin the reorganization of San Quentin State Prison from an institution that houses 3,300 incarcerated people at a high-security site on the San Francisco Bay to a “center for innovation focused on education, rehabilitation and breaking cycles of crime.”
The new plan would complete the closing of death row and shut a Prison Industry Authority warehouse. The facility would be renamed the San Quentin Rehabilitation Center.
Some of the larger questions about the reorganization will remain unanswered until the prison’s advisory committee decides them, including which imprisoned people are eligible for the rehabilitation center.
The new facility will also offer job training, according to the governor’s office, though the advisory committee will have to decide for which jobs inmates will be trained. In prisons in other states that emphasize vocational training, the jobs include plumbing and long-haul trucking.
The plan for the new facility is modeled on prisons in Scandinavian countries, including Norway, which significantly improved its rate of recidivism from 60%-70% in the 1980s to about 20% today when it began to allow prisoners more freedom and focused its prisons on rehabilitation.
In those prisons, incarcerated people can wear their own clothes, cook their own food and have relative freedom of movement within the prison walls. That model has taken root in states as disparate as deep-blue Connecticut and deep-red North Dakota.
Drawing inspiration from Scandinavian facilities is nothing new, and in fact, continues a trend that AMEND SF have begun in partnership with Norwegian prisons. Here’s an interesting report on the CDCR website about a trip some custodial staff took to Norway and what they learned from it. They’ve also brought Norwegian custodial staff to CDCR and to prisons in Washington State to inspire improvements in correctional culture.
It’s important to keep in mind that not all is peachy in Scandinavian criminal justice. In her book Nordic Nationalism, Vanessa Barker highlights the price of preserving a humanist welfare state–gatekeeping against immigrants. Keramet Reiter, Lori Sexton and Jennifer Sumner also wonder about the extent to which the humane and rehabilitative treatment of prisoners in Denmark can be imported to the United States given the difference in political cultures. And, in their fieldwork, they ask and answer some complicated questions about the Danish prison experience:
First, we find that harsh punishment can and does exist in Danish prisons.They are not, after all, uniformly humane; there are scratches in the “polished glass” and certainly reasons to resent the system. Second, the “responsibilization,”which Larson describes (and which, we argue, is fundamental to modern incarceration), can only be enacted through staff and institutional frameworks, which necessarily impose limits on individual freedoms. The particular ways that prisoners and staff describe the negotiation of limits—in the context of both open and closed prisons in Denmark—sheds light on the shortcomings of ScandinavianExceptionalism as both a substantive explanatory model as an ideological agenda that other countries might emulate.
A possible answer to this might be–duh, it’s prison. If it takes you out of your ordinary life against your will, it will involve *some* form of suffering. But I think there’s something else we have to ask ourselves.
I suspect that the energy behind the proposed Quentin overhaul–which, if it comes to fruition, will be overall a welcome development–has a lot to do with the Quentin COVID-19 disaster that we cover in FESTER. Yes, the physical plant at Quentin requires special attention because it is dilapidated and almost 200 years old, and basically allows disease to run rampant. But at the same time, it was no wonder that when CDCR tried to address COVID with transfer policies many people fretted and objected. As we explain in the book, Quentin benefits immensely from its location in the Bay Area, near nonprofits, universities, and a plethora of progressive do-gooders. Which means that, if you want to make parole, this is the place that will offer you the kind of programming and positive reports (“chronos”) that the parole board wants to see. People from all over the state jostle to try and get to Quentin. Investing even more in making Quentin a jewel of enlightened incarceration will make these disparities even worse.
This is not a good reason, of course, not to change things. But it is a good reason to rethink how things are going in the system as a whole. Given what we know about the practicality of population reduction–namely, that you could release 50% of CA’s prison population tomorrow without an appreciable rise in crime if the political good will was there–shouldn’t we try to spread the love toward Susanville and Central Valley, where lifers are parched for programming? And wouldn’t it do wonders for everything prison related–health-care, rehabilitation, the works–if there were overall fewer people in the system? If each prison, individually, were populated to 50% of design capacity, and this were the norm, wouldn’t that free up resources and professional attention to invest in Denmark-izing other prisons beyond the Bay Area?
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