Leaders Push Model That Favors Rehabilitation

By Genoa Barrow | OBSERVER Senior Staff Writer

California Gov. Gavin Newsom stopped executions in 2019 and shut down San Quentin’s death row unit where condemned men were caged. He wants to see it replaced with “a center for innovation focused on education, rehabilitation, and breaking cycles of crime.” The “reimagining” of the state’s “oldest and most notorious prison” comes with a $380 million price tag.

Gov. Newsom’s vision for San Quentin is based on a Scandinavian model of incarceration that is said to look more like a college campus than a traditional medium or maximum security prison. Sacramento Mayor Darrell Steinberg, who leads the governor’s San Quentin Transformation Advisory Council, traveled to Norway this month to tour facilities there.

“California is transforming San Quentin – the state’s most notorious prison with a dark past – into the nation’s most innovative rehabilitation facility focused on building a brighter and safer future,” Newsom said in March.

“By transforming San Quentin into a place that promotes health and positive change, California is making a historic commitment to redefining the institution’s purpose in our society,” adds Dr. Brie Williams, who co-chairs the advisory council. “I look forward to lifting the voices of people who have lived or worked in prisons to imagine a center for healing trauma, repairing harm, expanding knowledge, restoring lives and improving readiness for community return.”

The Hard ‘R’

San Quentin State Prison is slated to become the San Quentin Rehabilitation Center. Stakeholders say the change can’t be in name only, among them Assemblymember Mia Bonta and her husband, Attorney General Rob Bonta.

Assemblymember Bonta is among several members of the California Legislative Black Caucus who have incarceration-related bills they’re looking to see passed. Bonta, who chairs the Assembly Budget Subcommittee on Public Safety, also traveled to Norway with Steinberg.

​​ ”The tour was put on by Smart Justice and is meant to highlight how Norway has created an incarceration system of last resort where their recidivism rate is astronomically lower than ours,” her Chief of Staff Tomasa Duenas said.

Assemblymember Bonta was also present when Gov. Newsom first made his San Quentin announcement.

Gov. Gavin Newsom visits with men incarcerated at San Quentin earlier this year.
Gov. Gavin Newsom visits with men incarcerated at San Quentin earlier this year. Courtesy Governor’s Office

“We have not put the ‘R’ into CDCR,” Mia Bonta told The OBSERVER. “We have not focused on rehabilitation to the level that we know that we need to. If we’re actually going to be changing, creating a paradigm shift around our carceral system, we have to actually invest the dollars and cents into making sure that people can be rehabilitated.”

The attorney general agrees.

Rob Bonta on The State of California Prisons
California Attorney General Rob Bonta participated in the PPIC’s 2023 Speaker Series on California’s Future – In-Person and Online. During the event, Observer Senior Staff Writer, Genoa Barrow asked Bonta to share his thoughts on the state of California Prisons .

“The final ‘R’ in CDCR, which stands for rehabilitation, needs more priority, emphasis, investment, commitment, and there are ways that that can happen,” Rob Bonta says. “We need to look back and ask ourselves not what are we doing so we can continue to do it, but what have we done that works and … double down on what’s working. And [we] always have to be open to change and to what the data says, and not predetermine it.”

Both Bontas point to the 85% of California’s prisoners who eventually will be released.

“Most people who are convicted of a crime and are given a sentence are going to be released at some point,” Rob Bonta says. “Unless you have life without parole or a death sentence, you’re coming back to the community. The only question is, in what state? And with what capacity to contribute and be successful?”

The attorney general says those who have fulfilled their obligations to the state – who have “done their time” – need preparation and pathways to returning to society and living crime-free lives.

“How we do that, where we do that, is important,” he says. “One important reimagining we already have imagined. We just need to scale it, which is that towards the end of a sentence, the last six months, the last 12 months, maybe the last 18 months, [time] is served in a place where you are building the ability to be successful upon reentry – that you’re not given gate money and a ‘good luck’ after your sentence is over and [you’re] on your own to find a job, find housing, find a community … but that you are finding healing and any root causes that led you to be where you are. But that is as it’s been done with some of our reentry programs that the state has invested in and that are being expanded, as with the Amity Foundation where you’re getting anger management, you’re getting drug rehabilitation, you’re getting mental health, you’re getting job training, you’re getting a job, you’re getting housing, you’re with a community and with that you’re on a pathway to success. That’s an important part of the reimagining as well.”

A Matter of Responsibility 

Assemblymember Bonta says race also matters.

“Because of mass incarceration, the majority of the people who are inside our prisons are Black people” she says. “And so for me, anything that relates to making sure that when they are captured in our carceral system, they’re receiving the care and support and service that quite frankly, they didn’t receive because of our lack of anti-poverty measures to begin with. To get that opportunity when they’re in the carceral system, I feel like it’s a human dignity issue. It’s a social responsibility issue.”

In today’s world, officials must provide more than “three hots and a cot.”

“I can’t tell you how many people I’m starting to talk to who are in prison who say, ‘the first time I got diagnosed with my learning disability was in prison’; ‘The first time I attempted to tackle facing the trauma that I was exposed to as a child was in prison,’; ‘The first time I even thought that I needed to be able to address my drug addiction or drug use, that actually was in prison,’” she says.

“If people are for the first time dealing with all of the things that cause them to have less than while they are in our carceral system and we know that we want them to rejoin us and be a part of our community – we’re talking about our brothers, our sisters, our uncles and aunties, our mothers and fathers – then we better do our job as a state.”

Bonta’s bill, Assembly Bill 1104, would change California’s penal code to “make clear that the purpose of incarceration is rehabilitation and preparation for reentry, not levying additional punishment.” It also calls for providing more money to the community-based organizations already doing the reintegration work.

“That piece of legislation is basically saying, ‘state, first do no harm,’” the Bay Area lawmaker says. “If we know that these community-based organizations and people who are directly impacted have the strongest level of efficacy for working with people who are in the middle of their rehabilitation, then we need to put our money where our mouth is. Right now, we’re only dedicating .07% of our rehabilitation dollars towards community-based organizations involved in rehabilitation.”

The heavy lift with San Quentin coincides with the closure of several facilities throughout the state. Deuel Vocational Institution, located near Tracy, closed in September 2021. The California Correctional Center, in Susanville closed this past June. Chuckawalla Valley State Prison, located in Riverside County, is set to close in March 2025.

Image from Adobe Stock.

The CDCR also will stop leasing the property that houses its California City Correctional Facility in Kern County from CoreCivic, a private corrections and detention management corporation, in March. The move reportedly will mean an annual savings of $32 million. Additionally, the CDCR is fully or partially deactivating spaces within six prisons throughout this year: Folsom Women’s Facility; West Facility at the California Men’s Colony in San Luis Obispo; Facility A at the California Rehabilitation Center in Riverside County; Facility D at the California Institution for Men in Chino; Facility D at the California Correctional Institution in Tehachipi; and Facility C, a solitary confinement unit in Pelican Bay State Prison.

Officials cited several factors in deciding which facilities to close, including the cost to operate, the impact of closure on the surrounding communities and the workforce; housing needs; public safety and rehabilitation; and how the state is addressing prison overcrowding.

Budgeting A Crisis

Newsom’s proposal to “reimagine” San Quentin has been met with support and skepticism. Critics have called his plan “unnecessary,” “unrealistic” and light on actual details. Others say the focus, and money, shouldn’t be spent on just one facility, but on overhauling the entire system. And that includes closing more prisons.

In February several groups, including the California Coalition for Women Prisoners, Human Impact Partners and Californians United for a Responsible Budget, (CURB) released “From Crisis to Care: Ending the Health Harm of Women’s Prisons,” a report documenting what leaders call “catastrophic health harms” and calls for support of investments in health-promoting, non-carceral forms of accountability instead of incarceration.

“Closing California’s women’s prisons is a crucial step in ending the cycle of trauma and harm perpetuated by incarceration. We need more investments in our communities to provide the care and support people need to heal and thrive,” wrote report author Dr. Christine Mitchell, project director at Human Impact Partners.

CURB Executive Director Amber-Rose Howard has criticized Newsom’s 2023-24 budget proposal.

“More prison closures must happen in California,” says Howard, who is formerly incarcerated. “What’s missing is a concrete roadmap for how California can close more prisons successfully and shift billions in cost savings away from wasteful prison spending and toward the communities most impacted by incarceration, including towns where prisons will be closed.”

Investments in reentry and other services must be prioritized, Howard says.

“We don’t want to save any of that money when we see the budget decreasing for prisons; we don’t want to store it in a rainy day fund. We want to spend that money. The communities need it. People who are underserved in our communities, people who are underpaid, people who are houseless, people who are most directly impacted by the system of incarceration need that money to build up community infrastructure to keep people out of crisis and away from harm.”

Over the coming weeks, “Inside Out” will highlight the experiences of formerly incarcerated individuals and their families, look at efforts to improve local jail and prison facilities, and share the perspectives of Black correctional staffers and attorneys who work on change from within and activists who have dedicated their lives to shining a light on the inequities of the criminal justice system.