Inmates at San Quentin State Prison in California have formed a partnership with the San Francisco District Attorney (SFDA) intended to humanize the prisoners, broaden the perspective of criminal prosecutors, and reduce the number of incarcerated people through softer sentencing requests.
District attorneys, judges, and convicts sit side-by-side in large circles, resembling group therapy sessions. Prisoners reflect on the circumstances which led them to San Quentin, while prosecutors learn about the causes of criminal behavior.
NBC News’ Bay Area affiliate recently reported that “San Francisco District Attorney George Gascón has been quietly leading a team of prosecutors into the prison and meeting face-to-face with the men locked up inside” for several years, and:
Gascon said he hopes the collaboration will also lead to increased discretion by prosecutors. In some cases, he said, it might not be appropriate to go for the maximum sentence.
“There’s a limit to the effectiveness of incarceration and we passed that limit a long time ago,” Gascon said. “So for me, how do we start creating public policy that moves away from over-incarcerating?”
The fraternization sessions, known as San Quentin News Forums, are an ongoing series of discussions co-organized by the prison’s inmate-produced newspaper.
“What we’ve been doing is not working very well,” Gascón told a group of inmates during a gathering in 2013. “I hope you men can be helpful with our effort. We are the first D.A. system in the United States to use this approach.”
As the San Quentin News reported in 2012:
The forum came about after Assistant District Attorney Marisa Rodriguez visited the San Quentin Journalism Guild several months ago. After speaking with members of the San Quentin News staff, Rodriguez said she wanted to bring some of her colleagues into the prison to discuss ways to help at-risk youth avoid a life of crime by listening to personal stories of men who have been through the system.
Rodriguez’s surrogate father, Steve McNamara, is a volunteer advisor to the 13 inmates responsible for putting out the San Quentin News. He “absorbed” Rodriguez into his family after her parents passed away many years ago, and now refers to the prosecutor as his daughter. Described as a father figure by the prisoners he mentors, McNamara has been keeping an eye on San Quentin ever since it was a focal point of the Black Power movement more than 45 years ago.
McNamara, who has an extensive background in journalism, published the Pacific Sun newspaper from 1966 to 2004. The left-leaning weekly is based in upscale Marin County, California, which incongruously includes the state penitentiary. Some of his writers had deep ties to the prison reform movement.
Recently profiled by his alma mater, McNamara discussed the D.A.’s partnership with San Quentin.
As Princeton Alumni Weekly reported:
To date, the forums have included the sheriff of San Francisco, district attorneys of several Bay Area counties, congressional representatives, mayors, Superior and Appellate Court judges, as well as groups of high-school and college teachers. Gascón asked the 17 managers in his 300-person department to attend a forum. And in January, he hosted a gathering of 45 district attorneys from the largest jurisdictions in the United States.
“This will make a difference,” McNamara insists. “I see a chain reaction.”
The SFDA’s Office, which did not respond to repeated requests for information regarding this report, is said to have created an advisory board made up of formerly incarcerated people. However, there has been no mention of such a body on the official website’s “District Attorney Advisory Groups” page.
Gascón has long been criticized by law enforcement groups in California for his efforts to reform the criminal justice system. In 2014, he co-authored a statewide ballot initiative that reclassified many felonies to misdemeanors. Proposition 47 — highly funded by George Soros’ Open Society Foundations — was crafted to reduce incarcerations in the state. As California continues to experience the mounting negative ramifications of the law, Gascón is confident his prisoner-prosecutor partnership will serve as a model for district attorneys throughout the nation.
Follow Jeffrey Cawood on Twitter @Near_Chaos.