We Never Thought We'd Live To See Gavin Newsom Turning San Quentin Into Norwegian-Style Prison

We Never Thought We'd Live To See Gavin Newsom Turning San Quentin Into Norwegian-Style Prison
File:San Quentin Prison.jpg - Wikimedia Commons

San Quentin is one of the most notorious prisons in the United States, once home to Charles Manson and — due to the fact that California has not executed anyone since 2006 — home to the largest death row in the nation.

But California Governor Gavin Newsom has a different vision for it. The prison will soon close and reopen as a Norwegian-style rehabilitation center to prepare inmates leaving the prison system for life on the outside.

Unlike the United States, Norway and other Scandinavian countries have humane prisons, where the punishment is understood to be the loss of their freedom, not that they are not allowed to leave and also required to be miserable in other ways as well. Rather, the focus is on preparing them for life and to be "good neighbors" once they leave prison. They have nice food, pleasant living arrangements — in actual, regular houses, even — and are not treated like human garbage.


They also have much shorter prison sentences — no one can be sentenced to more than 21 years in prison (though in some cases there is an option to renew for 10 year periods) and even that is rare.

While it's unlikely that we will be going so far with San Quentin, there will be opportunities to gain skills that will transfer on the outside, to be treated with dignity, and learn to be "good neighbors."

Via the LA Times:

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. No longer will it be a maximum security facility. Instead, it will be a place for turning out good neighbors, incorporating Scandinavian methods.

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. Tucked 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.

As much as we can look at Norwegian prisons and see that they are more effective in terms of lowering recidivism, it's a hard pill for a lot of Americans to swallow, because we're so used to seeing prisons as this incredible, absolutely ruthless vengeance against people who have broken the laws of our nation and potentially hurt innocent people. We're also very committed to the idea that "criminal" is less a status than it is an orientation.

There's also the idea that our criminals are a special kind of evil. Like "Oh, that might work for Scandinavia, where the worst thing anyone does is steal someone's else's snowshoes, but not in the United States!" Personally I think Anders Breivik is a pretty bad dude, but what do I know? While we can acknowledge that America has a tendency towards extreme violence, particularly gun violence, it's also worth noting that our prisons are a part of that violence. That people root for prison rape (though thankfully not as much anymore) with cutesy "don't drop the soap" jokes, that we are inured to what goes on in them, that we gripe about "Club Fed" not being horrible enough, that's all a kind of violence. If we don't want to be a society where people are a "special kind of evil," getting rid of state-sponsored violence is a pretty good start.

I also think this attitude is just a teensy bit racist, though we can save that discussion for another time.

This kind of transition will also be beneficial to the people who have to work inside the prison. Matt Tompkins, a correctional officer working at Little Scandinavia, a similar project in the Pennsylvania prison system, was miserable in his job prior to being transferred to the project. In those days, he considered a good day to be a day he came home alive. And now he feels pretty okay.

Via LA Times:

“I never once thought, as a correctional officer, I had the ability to change somebody’s life. Never dawned on me whatsoever,” Tompkins said. “And that’s when a lightbulb went off in my head. ... You recognize that when you have the ability to help someone, it feels good.”

Though Tompkins once dreamed of jumping to the FBI, he now thinks he could retire from Chester. He is so confident of his safety that on the day I interviewed him, he had left his pepper spray in his office.

An often overlooked factor in our decisions to run prisons the way we do is the effect on the people working as correctional officers inside the prison. Correctional officers have a suicide rate that is seven times the national average, they have PTSD rates as high as veterans who served in Iraq and Afghanistan. When you think about it, it's a horrible thing to do to people. We hear a lot of stories of serious prisoner abuse in the system by correctional officers, but I doubt most of them go into the work thinking "Oh boy, I'm gonna get to beat the shit out of some people and be horrible to them."

"Most of them, when they go in, they want to treat prisoners well," said Shane Bauer, an investigative reporter who spent several months undercover as a CO, "But then you have to face the fact that you’re doing something that is not really within your normal realm of what it means to be a decent human being."

And in a lot of areas, prison jobs are the best jobs available. There's a cruelty in that.

I don't just hope that this experiment will go well — I know that it will. Because it is based on methods that have actually been proven to work rather than methods that feel like they are supposed to work simply because they scratch an itch for vengeance.

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Robyn Pennacchia

Robyn Pennacchia is a brilliant, fabulously talented and visually stunning angel of a human being, who shrugged off what she is pretty sure would have been a Tony Award-winning career in musical theater in order to write about stuff on the internet. Follow her on Twitter at @RobynElyse


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