Death Penalty Prison Prison Policy prison reform Rehabilitation

Reinventing San Quentin

Image by the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation – Execution chamber is dismantled following CA Governor Gavin Newsom’s announced moratorium on the death penalty.
Taylor Walker
Written by Taylor Walker

The maximum security San Quentin State Prison, long-time home of the largest number of people on death row in the nation (and in the entire Western Hemisphere), will be redesigned as a prison focused on rehabilitation and education to better prepare people for a successful return to their families and communities, California Governor Gavin Newsom announced on March 17. 

The condemned men currently housed at San Quentin will be transferred to other prisons, a move first plotted in 2016, with the passage of Proposition 66, the voter-approved initiative to speed up the death penalty process in California.

An advisory group made up of criminal justice, rehabilitation, and public safety experts from around the world, as well as crime survivors, formerly incarcerated people, and other stakeholders will help shape the new “San Quentin Rehabilitation Center.” 

“California is transforming San Quentin – the state’s most notorious prison with a dark past – into the nation’s most innovative rehabilitation facility focused on building a brighter and safer future,” said Governor Newsom. “Today, we take the next step in our pursuit of true rehabilitation, justice, and safer communities through this evidenced-backed investment, creating a new model for safety and  justice — the California Model — that will lead the nation.”

“I see this model,” said Tinisch Hollins, Executive Director of Californians for Safety and Justice, “as a historical pivot in the way that we look at how we create safety.”

Newsom’s 2023-24 budget includes $20 million to begin the process of transforming San Quentin.

The move is the next step in Newsom’s ongoing effort to reduce the prison population, close state prisons, and unmake the state’s death row. 

In March 2019, Newsom ordered a moratorium on executions that will last as long as he remains in office.

At the time, the governor claimed that placing a moratorium on the death penalty counted as granting reprieves to the 737 people who were on death row at the time. (That number dropped to 668, as of March 19, 2022, according to the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation.)

Those de facto reprieves won’t last beyond Newsom’s tenure as California’s governor, however, and advocates have argued that Newsom must also commute sentences to life-without-parole to ensure that a future governor can’t just resume executions once elected. 

Oregon’s governor, Kate Brown, did just that in December 2022, commuting the sentences of the 17 people on Oregon’s death row.


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