California is transforming a prison with a death row legacy

SACRAMENTO, Calif. (AP) – California Gov. Gavin Newsom plans to transform a state prison that is home to the nation’s…

SACRAMENTO, Calif. (AP) — California Gov. Gavin Newsom plans to convert the state’s prison, which houses the nation’s largest number of death row inmates, into a facility where inmates can receive education, training and rehabilitation.

Newsom’s office announced new plans Thursday for San Quentin State Prison, which will be renamed the San Quentin Rehabilitation Center. The governor plans to visit the San Francisco Bay Area prison on Friday as part of a statewide political tour.

“Today, we’re taking the next step in our pursuit of real rehabilitation, justice and safer communities through this sound investment, creating a new model of safety and justice — the California model — to guide the nation,” Newsom said in a statement.

The plan marks a massive change in how the state will determine the fates of those behind bars.

Newsom announced a moratorium on executions in 2019, but about 700 the inmates remain on death row today.

California’s death sentences have been reduced over the years, and the state last executed an inmate in 2006.

Advising the state on the conversion will be a panel of public safety experts, crime victims and ex-convicts. Newsom is committing $20 million to launch the plan.

Inmates on death row will not have their sentences commuted, but will be transferred to other prisons, Newsom’s office said.

San Quentin is the oldest correctional facility in California. It houses one high-security block, a medium-security dormitory, and a minimum-security fire station. Historically, it housed the state’s only gas chamber, although Newsom dismantled it a few years ago. Most of the men on death row are still in San Quentin, but some have already been transferred.

The prison held notorious criminals such as cult leader Charles Manson, convicted murderers and serial killers, and was the site of violent riots in the 1960s and 1970s.

But the jail in upscale Marin County, north of San Francisco, is also home to some of the most innovative inmate programs in the country, reflecting the politically liberal beliefs of the Bay Area.

It is home to Mount Tamalpais College, the nation’s first accredited junior college founded entirely behind bars. The school offers inmates classes in literature, astronomy, U.S. government and more to earn an associate of arts degree.

The college’s annual budget of $5 million is funded by private donations with volunteer faculty from leading nearby universities, including Stanford and the University of California, Berkeley.


Sophie Austin is a member of the Associated Press Corporation/Report for America Statehouse News Initiative. Reporting for America is a nonprofit national outreach program that places journalists in local newsrooms to cover underreported issues. Follow Austin on Twitter: @sophieadanna

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