Johnny Cash played two shows for the inmates in San Quentin, in 1958 and then again in 1969. The latter concert was recorded live as Johnny Cash at San Quentin. On the playlist were such staples as “A Boy Named Sue” and “Walk the Line,” but the song that was greeted with a real uproar from the inmates, under the close watch of the armed guards, was surely the ballad that wished that hated institution a quick and fiery end.
The oldest California prison has been open since 1852, just two years after the founding of the state, in the days of the Gold Rush. Built on a promontory jutting into San Francisco Bay from the Marin County shoreline, just across the Richmond Bridge, the penitentiary houses more than 3,000 inmates, including nearly 700 on the infamous death row. Technically, the death penalty is still in effect in California, but no executions have been carried out for 17 years, and in 2019 Governor Gavin Newsom officially put in place a permanent moratorium on new executions.
The old prison (“may it burn in hell,” sang Cash amid whoops from the inmates) is the oldest public institution in California, and – as with the other “mythical” American prisons (Sing Sing, Attica, Leavenworth, Pelican Bay, Angola, Guantanamo, etc.) – it has become part of the penal mythology of the country that houses a quarter of all prisoners on the planet. The list of those who have passed through San Quentin gives a picture of the criminality of a violent country and reflects its history of social tensions: Charles Manson, Eldridge Cleaver of the Black Panthers and Sirhan Sirhan, convicted of the assassination of Robert Kennedy, have all served their sentences here. Its gray stone walls have hosted “Tarantinian” actor Danny Trejo and country “outlaw” Merle Haggard. And over the years, hundreds of people have been put to death here. When the infamous gas chamber (and later lethal injection) would be put into action, the clearing outside the gates was the site of protests and vigils. I particularly remember the one in 2005 for Stanley “Tookie” Williams, a founding member of the Crips turned book author. A broad movement fought to get him pardoned at the time – but in vain, as Governor Schwarzenegger refused to stop his execution.
The prison was represented many times in film and literature, beginning with The Star Rover, Jack London’s 1915 novel that was set there. Later it featured in numerous Hollywood depictions: in The Escape (1947), Humphrey Bogart escapes from here after being wrongfully convicted. He is picked up on the street by Lauren Bacall, who hides him and helps him change his face with plastic surgery to try to clear his name. The list goes from Woody Allen’s Take the Money and Run (1968) to Fruitvale Station (2013), Ryan Coogler’s tour-de-force debut.
San Quentin comes with a heavy weight in the collective imagination, as a symbol for hard time – a gloomy, ghost-filled place, much like the bad conscience of a country with more than 2 million people behind bars, and with what has been appropriately called a prison-industrial complex, a permanent and self-perpetuating gulag, sustained by multiple interests and a punitive conception of justice from the country’s early days, colored, as usual, by racial discrimination and used as an instrument of social control.
In this fundamentalist conception, imprisonment is a means of punishment and revenge (“retribution”) for crimes committed, and, despite the mass of scientific studies indicating its greater effectiveness, rehabilitation is still seen as something unreliable at best. California was actually one of the places where the idea of rehabilitation managed to make inroads, at least in the season of social progress in the 1960s and 1970s, when forward-thinking prison administrators tried to apply a more enlightened philosophy aimed at rehabilitating inmates and decreasing the rate of repeat offenders.
Unfortunately, it was a short season. Progressive policies soon fell victim to the conservative and punitive drift that took charge with Reaganism. “Public safety” became an increasingly recurring theme of political campaigns, and the “solution” invariably proposed was the toughening of prison sentences and the restriction of parole, with the effect of further increasing the already enormous prison population serving multi-decade sentences, sometimes for just a few small crimes. From 1985 to 2006, the number of prisoners in California increased from 50,000 to more than 170,000.
With this securitarian escalation, every reference to rehabilitation became anathema for a hypertrophic prison complex accompanied by the thriving commercial sector of private prisons. Hosting a prison became a mirage for many places in the economically depressed hinterlands, provincial and desert towns where a new prison could mean the creation of jobs – staff and guards – necessary to sustain the local economy: a geography of ultimate marginalization in which prisoners became raw material for a boom built on the deprivation of liberty. In this context, correctional officers have become one of the most powerful lobbies in the public sector. Once privatization was introduced, it garnered the favor of private interests with every incentive to keep incarceration rates high and oppose all reforms designed to promote rehabilitation.
Ironically, it was “Terminator Governor” Schwarzenegger who began to reverse course in the early 2000s; under his tenure, the word “rehabilitation” was added to the name of the prison department. The legalization of cannabis led to substantial sentencing relief and pardons for light drug offenses that had kept tens of thousands in prison. Meanwhile, among criminologists, more scientific theories have gained support that confirm the usefulness of rehabilitative measures in reducing the stubbornly high recidivism rate, at over 60 percent in the three years after release and up to 77 percent after five years (the numbers for Italy are similar). At the same time, every study and report has confirmed that the rates drop significantly if inmates follow courses of study and vocational qualification before release. Indeed, countries like Norway where such options are available on a large scale – and where the entire prison experience is aimed toward social reintegration after release – show rates of recidivism of under 20 percent.
On the basis of this data, Governor Gavin Newsom announced his intention to adopt the “Norwegian system” in California, beginning with a pilot experiment in the iconic San Quentin prison itself. Instead of the normalized brutality and repressive regime that has characterized San Quentin’s history, the prison will now become a testbed for vocational training, social and psychiatric services, and a model infrastructure for preventive rehabilitation designed to minimize the likelihood of inmates falling back into crime after the end of their sentences.
Converting San Quentin to a place of ethical and humanitarian incarceration aimed at recovery and reintegration certainly represents a U-turn in a state where there is still widespread use of “solitary” – the permanent solitary confinement regime similar to Italy’s 41-bis – a system that sees thousands of inmates effectively buried alive in “Supermax” institutions (an estimated 48,000 across the U.S.) The reform will also permanently shut down death row and reintegrate those inmates among the general population.
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