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Newsom aims to transform San Quentin into a model for prisoner rehabilitation


California has one of the largest prison populations in the country, in part because paroled inmates often end up back in prison. Governor Gavin Newsom wants to address that problem by piloting a new model for prisoner rehabilitation. Scott Shafer from member station KQED in San Francisco reports on that controversial plan at San Quentin Prison.


SCOTT SHAFER, BYLINE: On a recent morning at San Quentin, about a hundred incarcerated men are out in the prison yard. They're lifting weights, playing pickleball and shooting hoops.


SHAFER: San Quentin is best known for its death row, but there hasn't been an execution here since 2006. And now those inmates are being moved to other prisons and death row is being closed. Many of the remaining prisoners here will one day be let out on parole, so Governor Newsom wants to rethink how these inmates are prepared for the day they're released.

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GAVIN NEWSOM: If San Quentin can do it, it can be done anywhere else. This is about reducing recidivism in this state.

SHAFER: The idea is to convert an old furniture factory at the prison into a kind of college campus with classrooms and job training.

DARRELL STEINBERG: A common space within the reimagined prison where correctional officers and residents can interact and support each other.

SHAFER: That's Sacramento Mayor Darrell Steinberg, the governor's senior adviser on San Quentin's future. Steinberg describes a reimagined penitentiary focused on giving skills to incarcerated people before they're paroled and changing the fundamental dynamics between inmates and correctional officers.

STEINBERG: We want to create an atmosphere where the residents and the correctional officers are interacting as human beings.

SHAFER: San Quentin already has a rich array of rehabilitation programs, like college prep classes. Newsom's plan would expand those while adding new ones. Jason Jones was paroled from here five years ago. He's a graduate of San Quentin's computer coding program and now helps lead it. He says learning that skill changed everything.

JASON JONES: I got introduced to technology - never really grew up with a computer. I didn't even know what coding was before I actually get into class. And next thing I know, three weeks before I go home, I'm actually signing a contract with a tech company. It's the first job I ever had in my life.

SHAFER: But there have been critics. Some say it's all about Newsom planning to run for president in 2028, something he denies. When the plan was rolled out five months ago, the state's nonpartisan legislative analyst criticized its striking lack of details, like who will be eligible, how much will it cost and what the new campus will look like. Those details won't be coming until the end of the year. Republican Assemblyman Tom Lackey from Southern California says it was almost insulting.

TOM LACKEY: People that even supported the rehabilitative process were like, we need more detail, right? This was not just a partisan criticism.

SHAFER: Nonetheless, at Newsom's urging, the legislature approved $380 million to get started. Other critics wonder if it's the best place to put so much money. Katie Dixon, with the California Coalition for Women Prisoners, wants to see more funding go to community-based programs that are already making a difference in the lives of those on parole.

KATIE DIXON: Why should we be finding money to rebuild this prison when we could be putting that money into more proven opportunities for people when they get out of prisons?

SHAFER: San Quentin inmate Juan Haines, who's been incarcerated 27 years, says he thinks the key to this project's success or failure lies in finding the right inmates to participate.

JUAN HAINES: There's a lot of people who enter California prisons, and they're just - rehabilitation is the last thing on their minds. But then there's a lot of people in California prisons that are really looking for opportunities to better their lives.

SHAFER: Newsom is pushing to finish the first phase of this transformation by the end of 2025, a year before he leaves office.

For NPR News, I'm Scott Shafer in San Francisco.

(SOUNDBITE OF BAASKAT'S "BITTERSWEET") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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Scott Shafer