In summary

Gov. Gavin Newsom wants to transform San Quentin State Prison by modeling the prison system in Norway. But changing one facility will not accomplish the sort of wholesale reforms required to mirror the Norwegian criminal justice system.

Guest Commentary written by

Shervin Aazami

Shervin Aazami

Shervin Aazami is the strategy and development manager for Initiate Justice Action.

Emiliano Lopez

Emiliano Lopez

Emiliano Lopez communications and data manager for Initiate Justice Action.

Last month, California Gov. Gavin Newsom unveiled plans to turn San Quentin State Prison into a rehabilitation center by 2025. Committing $20 million to the project in his proposed 2023-2024 budget, Newsom said his goal is to transform San Quentin into “the preeminent restorative justice facility in the world.”

As the oldest prison in the state and the site where Californians on death row faced execution prior to Newsom’s 2019 moratorium, the selection of San Quentin to pilot a new Nordic-style prison model is steeped in symbolism.

At face value, that symbolism is positive – we need to focus on rehabilitation, job training and education for folks in and out of prison because the punishment-centric model has resulted in a roughly 50% three-year recidivism rate. But while the Newsom administration is framing this as a new model for justice and public safety, the reality is far more complex.

To overhaul how we define public safety in California, it requires an honest reckoning with the violence and racism inherent to U.S. policing and prison systems. Put another way, we can’t turn a light switch and adopt a care-first Nordic model without taking full stock of why prisons were built to function the way they do in America.

Norwegians never enacted sweeping criminal penalties that unabashedly targeted certain groups, the way the United States did with the black codes, Jim Crow laws and the war on drugs. Norwegians didn’t abolish slavery only to retain it for people in prison, the way the U.S. did with the penal servitude clause of the 13th Amendment. Today that practice continues – incarcerated Californians working in fire camps are paid an appalling wage of $2 a day, and weren’t allowed to become firefighters upon release until a couple years ago. Last year the California Legislature voted against ending prison slavery.

The culture of America’s prisons is fundamentally punitive. In Norwegian prisons there is no physical abuse, forced labor or solitary confinement. There are no restrictions on family visits. People in Norway’s prisons never lose the right to vote. Norwegian correctional officers don’t carry weapons of any kind. There is tremendous emphasis on reintegration, and prison workers are trained in psychology and social work far more than they are in self-defense.

But it isn’t just how Norwegian prisons function that is different – it’s also the criminal legal system itself. In Norway, the average sentence length across all conviction types is eight months. The longest sentence is 21-30 years, and is reserved for the most heinous crimes, like genocide. Meanwhile in the United States, 1 in 7 are serving a life sentence.

Norway is also focused on crime prevention through investment in communities. Norway has one of the strongest social safety nets in the world, with policies like universal health care and education, robust mental health care and addiction treatment services, social housing and universal child care. People aren’t struggling to survive financially the way they are en masse in the United States, and that socioeconomic security undergirds Norway’s significantly lower crime and recidivism rates.

So, while Newsom’s pilot of the Norwegian model at San Quentin is laudable on paper, realization of the Norwegian approach to prisons here in California will require nothing less than a total transformation of the cultural and philosophical lens through which we define public safety, and the societal roles of police and prisons.

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