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The 4,054 human faces of San Quentin

In March 2011, CJCJ visited San Quentin State Prison, and noted the oppressive overcrowding in the prison’s gymnasium and the negative effect this has on opportunities for rehabilitation. Two years later, on March 27, 2013, CJCJ revisited the prison to see what changes had occurred since the implementation of Realignment.

Certainly, the prison population has reduced in San Quentin; the reception center numbers have fallen from approximately 3,000 inmates in 2009 to 600 today, and the gymnasiums are now empty. The new medical facility is clean, spacious, and full of people receiving care. San Quentin provides significantly more programs and opportunities than other California prisons, often run by volunteer groups from the community, and these programs are operational and alive with productivity.

However, San Quentin is still at 132% capacity, housing 4,054 individuals (as of March 20, 2013), and despite the Governor’s protestations it is clear that there is more work to be done. According to Lt. Sam Robinson, who led the tour, San Quentin’s vocational and work assignment programs can serve approximately 50% of the prison’s eligible population. Records show its academic programs have a capacity to serve 16%. Additionally, during a discussion with a group of men serving life sentences, it became clear that its drug and alcohol programs are unable to meet the high demand for treatment. Many of the men explained the role drugs played in their destructive life choices and in the crimes they committed, yet both the staff and inmates spoke of significant wait lists for drug, alcohol, and other rehabilitative programs.

Walking through the prison, one could see the aging of the prison demographic. Many men were visibly disabled, walking with canes and filling the medical facility. The consequences of aging in prison are disturbing. A 2010 report by the Human Rights Watch describes the concerns of California prison guards with no training on how to address inmates with dementia,

“He forgets his medications, he loses his way to the cell, and he forgets that he is in prison. He gets into fights because he ends up in the wrong cell. He is unsafe and needs more care.”

Medical costs for older inmates range up to 9 times higher than the average inmate.

As CJCJ’s latest report notes, Realignment has significantly reduced non-violent, female, and parole violator prison populations, leaving a majority male and older population in prison, most admitted for violent offenses. The dramatic shift in the demography of California’s prisons is cause for us to think differently about the use of incarceration. San Quentin is an example of a prison in flux. The 4,054 men housed in San Quentin have high medical, social, and rehabilitative needs. How the prison adapts its space and resources to adequately supervise and rehabilitate these people moving forward is of utmost importance to the future of California corrections.

For more information on what’s happening in San Quentin State Prison, follow the San Quentin News, the only inmate-produced paper in California.

Special thanks to Lt. Sam Robinson and all the staff and inmates for the opportunity.

Keywords: AB 109, prisons, rehabilitation, Selena Teji

Posted in Blog, Correctional Institutions

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