San Quentin prison blues

By Michelle Chen Jun 10, 2009

California’s most infamous prison may be shuttering its doors at last, and some may feel surprisingly troubled about its closure. The cash-strapped state is moving toward closing San Quentin—which houses more than 5,000 inmates, many of them on death row—in order to sell off its prime waterfront real estate. That might be a welcome development for opponents of the prison industrial complex. San Quentin has been blasted for dysfunctional and inhumane conditions. But it has also become a model institution of sorts, offering an extensive array of recreational and rehabilitation programs. The Associated Press quotes Vinny Nguyen, 31, doing 25-to-life for murder:

We’re surrounded by a lot of universities and we get a lot of help and contact from the outside. It makes us want to be positive. That would all be destroyed along with San Quentin.

Jody Lewen, who runs the Prison University Project—a flagship program that allows inmates to work toward a high school or college degree while doing time—also bristled at the prospect of the project ending along with the facility. Over the years, there have been various proposals to close the prison and motley alliances on both sides (realtors in favor, correctional officers opposed). But San Quentin, despite its innovations, remains a cog in a system rife with racial disparities and heavy economic and moral costs. Public opposition to California’s various prison expansion initiatives has prompted protests and litigation. Activists are outraged that lawmakers would sink more money into prison building (purportedly to deal with overcrowding) while starving programs for education and public works. A $12 billion proposal for prison and jail construction was recently tacked onto the budget package sent to Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger. Many critics worry that shuttering San Quentin would simply enable the state to shift inmates, and more public funds, into a newly built death row. Californians United for a Responsible Budget, a coalition of civic groups, has proposed long-range reforms to reduce the prison population: shifting resources toward reentry and rehabilitation, expanding alternative sentencing programs, such as drug treatment, which would both save money and lay the groundwork for a more rational corrections policy. Still, prison closure isn’t an open and shut case. While San Quentin may symbolize the moral repugnance of the incarceration epidemic, the individuals condemned to these facilities are also stakeholders in the debate. For those on the inside, the ability to cull some hope and enlightenment from a draconian institution speaks both to the success of the movement to reform the system, as well as how much work still needs to be done. Image: Prison University Project