Newsom seeks to revamp San Quentin Prison; Advisory council’s meetings concealed

San Quentin State Prison in California is set to undergo a transformation under Governor Gavin Newsom’s plan to turn it into a rehabilitation facility. However, the decision-making process behind this plan is shrouded in secrecy, as a hand-picked advisory council is allowed to meet behind closed doors. Initially, state lawmakers were hesitant to approve Newsom’s $360 million plan, which involved tearing down an old furniture factory on the prison grounds and replacing it with a facility resembling a college campus. However, they ultimately greenlit the project, sacrificing transparency and their own oversight role in the process.

Governor Newsom aims to turn San Quentin, a facility that was previously used for executions, into a model for reintegrating individuals into society—a departure from the state’s longstanding focus on punishment. His goal is to complete the transformation by December 2025, just before his term ends. To shape this project, Newsom put together a 21-member advisory council, which began meeting in June to discuss the design and programming of the new facility. However, during budget negotiations, the requirement for the council to follow open meetings law was removed, allowing their discussions to remain confidential.

After facing inquiries from The Associated Press, the governor’s office has now committed to releasing the advisory council’s report to the public before Newsom presents his next budget in January. According to Izzy Gardon, the deputy director of communications for Newsom, transparency and input from various stakeholders, including victims, incarcerated individuals and their families, and program providers, are crucial for the success of the San Quentin Rehabilitation Center.

The closed-door meetings of the advisory council have raised concerns among both supporters and critics of prison reform. Republican lawmakers argue that the legislature should have more involvement in such a significant and expensive project, especially in light of the state’s $32 billion budget deficit. Criminal justice advocates, on the other hand, believe that the focus should be on closing more prisons rather than investing in new facilities. The lack of public accessibility to the advisory council meetings is particularly worrying for some, as it limits scrutiny of the decision-making process.

The advisory council consists of criminal justice reform advocates, high-ranking officials from San Quentin, and Newsom’s political allies, including Sacramento Mayor Darrell Steinberg. With meetings held at least five times since June, the council is expected to present a preliminary report to the administration in September, followed by a final report in December.

Governor Newsom announced his plans for the San Quentin Rehabilitation Center in March, intending to adopt aspects of the Scandinavian prison model. Under this model, cells resemble dorm rooms, and inmates have access to activities and educational programs. Since imposing a moratorium on executions in 2019, California has been transferring the remaining death row inmates at San Quentin to other prisons. The current inmate population at San Quentin exceeds 3,600 individuals.

San Quentin already houses some of the most innovative programs for inmates in the United States. Newsom’s administration provided reporters with a tour of the prison in July, highlighting accredited college classes, a coding academy, and an award-winning newsroom. While many inmates expressed excitement about the addition of more programming spaces, some remained skeptical. Inmate Juan Haines, who has spent nearly three decades at San Quentin, emphasized the importance of both inmates and prison guards embracing the governor’s vision for the project.

The Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation has already started seeking contractors to design the new San Quentin campus. A firm has been hired, and construction is scheduled to commence next year. To expedite the project, lawmakers waived the requirements for historic preservation and an environmental impact review. The estimated cost of the San Quentin rehabilitation campus is $360 million, which will be funded through a lease revenue bond. Additionally, lawmakers have agreed to allocate another $20 million from the general fund for other smaller projects recommended by the advisory council.

Democratic lawmakers, who hold a supermajority in California, support Newsom’s project. In exchange for their approval, they secured access to key data on the operational capacities of prisons across the state, aiding their decision-making process regarding which facilities to close. With approximately 15,000 empty prison beds in California, this provision will be crucial for managing the prison system effectively. Although Newsom did not actively seek input from Republican lawmakers, some exceptions were made during the negotiations.

However, concerns remain about the lack of communication and transparency in the decision-making process. Critics believe that the public has been left in the dark, and grassroots efforts to engage with lawmakers and the administration have been disregarded. As various stakeholders voice their unease, Governor Newsom has emphasized the need for urgency and collaboration throughout the project. While lawmakers initially questioned the high price tag and the ambitious 2025 deadline, they ultimately granted Newsom’s request, withholding accountability provisions with the expectation of receiving detailed plans before authorizing the lease revenue bond.

In conclusion, Governor Newsom’s plan to transform San Quentin State Prison into a rehabilitation facility is progressing with the help of a hand-picked advisory council. The closed-door meetings of this council have attracted criticism and raised concerns about transparency, especially given the significant budget deficit California faces. Despite initial skepticism, democratic lawmakers have supported the project, leveraging their approval to gain access to crucial prison data. With construction expected to start next year, Newsom is determined to deliver on his vision before his term ends, striving for a more rehabilitative approach to criminal justice.

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