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San Quentin Prison Reform Due, Using Scandinavian Methods

California Gov. Gavin Newsom says his state will rethink the purpose of prison by “ending San Quentin as we know it.” By 2025, California’s first and most infamous penitentiary, where criminals including Charles Manson and Scott Peterson have done time, will become something entirely different: the largest center of rehabilitation, education, and training in the California prison system, and maybe the nation. San Quentin will no longer be a maximum security facility. Instead, it will be a place for turning out good neighbors by incorporating Scandinavian methods, reports the Los Angeles Times. The vision for a new San Quentin includes job training for careers that can pay six figures, trades such as plumbers, electricians, or truck drivers, and using the complex as a last stop of incarceration before release. In the proposed budget Newsom released weeks ago is $20 million to jump-start the effort. The plan for San Quentin is “not just about reform, but about innovation,” a chance to “hold ourselves to a higher level of ambition and look to completely reimagine what prison means,” Newsom said.


The Scandinavian philosophy of incarceration has already been used in pilot programs in Oregon, Pennsylvania and ultra-red North Dakota, as well as in small-scale experiments inside a few other California prisons. The choice of San Quentin is a statement by Newsom about justice reform and about California, one with the potential not only to change what it means to serve time but also to create a pathway to safer communities that the current system has failed to deliver. Recidivism rates remain stubbornly high, people of color are disproportionately incarcerated, and conservatives and liberals are at odds. Many on the right say prison should serve as a deterrent: Serving time is not supposed to be pleasant, and hard conditions teach hard lessons. On the left, many say restorative justice and other means of diverting people from incarceration should be the priority. The reality is that most people who go into prison come out again, more than 30,000 a year in California. Public safety depends on people choosing to change and having opportunities for a sustainable, law-abiding life. Otherwise, they will simply go back to a life of crime, Newsom said. The Scandinavian model looks at the loss of liberty and separation from the community as the punishment. During that separation, life should be as normal as possible so that people can learn to make better choices without being preoccupied with fear and violence.

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