California’s most notorious prison, San Quentin, is being transformed into a Scandinavian-style rehabilitation centre, the state’s progressive governor will announce on Friday.
Gavin Newsom hopes to shake up the “broken” American criminal justice system and “completely reimagine what prison means” by turning the controversial maximum-security San Francisco facility into the largest education and training facility for criminals in the country.
Mr Newsom’s $20 million (£16 million) vision for a new San Quentin by 2025 will see the jail where criminals including cult leader Charles Manson and Black Panther Party leader Eldridge Cleaver served time more closely resemble the low-security facilities in countries such as Norway and Sweden.
It will offer inmates job training for careers that can pay six figures – trades such as plumbers, electricians and truck drivers – in an effort to “turn out good neighbours”, the LA Times reported.
Correctional systems throughout much of Scandinavia are guided by philosophical principles emphasising rehabilitation and a return to life outside, with security minimal.
Those countries say the US model of deterrence and punishment has been shown not to work.
Mr Newsom, a businessman who previously served as California’s lieutenant governor, wants to reduce recidivism, citing statistics that show 30,000 prisoners released back into the general population each year in California.
“Do you want them coming back with humanity and some normalcy, or do you want them coming back more bitter and more beaten down?” he asks.
US incarceration rates are the highest in the world, about 10 times those throughout Scandinavia, which are among the world’s lowest. Several prisons in America each hold nearly twice the prison population of Finland.
Nordic prisons report recidivism rates one-half to one-third of those in the US – 20 to 30 per cent versus 40 to 70 per cent.
Sam Lewis, the executive director of the Anti-Recidivism Coalition, an advocacy organisation working to end mass incarceration, told the LA Times: “The prisons that we have in America were not meant to transform people into the best versions of themselves. They were built to house and warehouse people.”
But the Scandinavian model is “helping people become the best version of themselves. As we bring people home, if we give them real opportunities to make a decent living, think of how we are breaking the cycle,” said Mr Lewis, who travelled to Norway and Sweden in 2019 to observe how prisons there were run.
But his ambitious plan to reform San Quentin has sparked criticism that the state is going soft on crime.
Plagued with gangs and drugs
Critics of Mr Newsom’s idea have pointed out that unlike most countries in northern Europe, California’s prison system is plagued with gangs, drugs and mental illness.
San Quentin, which houses up to 3,000 prisoners, would need to train correctional officers and give them the space to use that training, meaning more officers for fewer inmates.
“The governor has taken loopholes and nuances in the law and used them to give criminals – the worst criminals – a break,” Michael Rushford, president of the conservative Criminal Justice Legal Foundation, said. “Injecting politics into criminal justice and public safety is insane. It’s unjust, unfair and it’s stupid.”
The Democratic governor is thought to harbour ambitions for the White House, with recent actions fuelling speculation he may be eyeing a presidential run.
The 55-year-old has in recent years pushed some of the most liberal reforms in the state’s history, including a ban on new diesel cars on the roads by 2035, halting the death penalty, advancing gun reforms and turning California into a safe haven for women seeking abortions.
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”, Mr Newsom will say.
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