Despite the fact that California's San Quentin prison has been a national leader in arts, athletics, education and media programming and is now embarking on large-scale reforms, some of its residents remain incarcerated in some of the harshest prison living conditions in the nation. Many of them are serving decades-long or life sentences and have no access to programs. Those on death row won’t see the implementation of the new reforms. Gov. Gavin Newsom will be shuttering the unit, and the more than 500 men inside will be shipped off to other institutions, the Guardian reports. Newsom’s planned to “completely reimagine what prison means” by transforming the complex into a “rehabilitation center” inspired by prisons in Norway, where officers act more like social workers. Over the years, San Quentin became one of the most notorious U.S. prisons, home to the largest death row in the country and the site of 500 executions.
In recent decades, the prison, like the rest of the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation (CDCR), has grappled with violence, officer misconduct, severe overcrowding and routine medical neglect that at one point was causing more than one preventable death a week across the state prison system. Today, there are nearly 4,000 people imprisoned at San Quentin, 120% over capacity. San Quentin has a media center where incarcerated people produce award-winning podcasts, films and a newspaper. “This is a space unlike any prison – it’s like a real workplace environment and newsroom, one of the only newsrooms left in the country, from what I’m hearing,” joked Steve Brooks, the 51-year-old editor-in-chief of the paper, who has been incarcerated since 1996. “As you can see, we don’t have any officers around with guns held over us.” An empty 81,000-square-foot warehouse, once a furniture factory, will be turned into new facilities meant to resemble a college campus. Lawmakers have appropriated $360 million for the change, a decision decried by advocacy groups who’ve argued funding new prison construction is an ineffective strategy to address the state’s mass incarceration crisis.