San Quentin Plantation Paradigm

San Quentin Plantation Paradigm
San Quentin prison in 2005. Photo courtesy of The Commons


Using the Norwegian model as a template, San Quentin State Prison wants to be the model gulag for California, the nation and beyond. This comes with a sticker price of $380 million, which was rejected by the state legislators. San Quentin is the oldest prison in California.

Abolition is the answer. Changing the name to San Quentin Rehabilitation Center? Building a better plantation has never been a good position for Black people in America. If we’re truly transforming prisons in California, let’s transform them into extinction. A transformed prison is still a plantation.

Our most difficult and urgent challenge to date is that of creatively exploring new terrains of justice where the prison no longer serves as our major anchor.

—Angela Davis

If we can’t abolish prisons, we must chip away at the Prison Industrial Complex. Governor Gavin Newsom’s prison reform is more politically courageous than his predecessors. Dismantling San Quentin’s death chamber and placing a moratorium on all executions is evolutionary. Making calls free for California prisoners is progress.

Positive reform must equal permanent reform; political winds fluctuate. We must advocate against wrongful convictions and for the human rights of incarcerated people.

San Quentin prison in 2005. Photo courtesy of The Commons

If the 95,000 California state prisoners could vote like Norwegian prisoners, that would be transformative. We must reform society as well. Systematic racism saturates every segment of America. This includes the very criminal justice system that populates prisons.

Reimagine what real prison reform looks like in 2023. Is it this tablet with free calling, to connect with invisible friends and family, who’ve moved on over the decades? What is the plan for ending custody staff’s toxic culture of systematic racism, violence and abuse? Overseeing the overseers and correcting the correctional officers, that’s evolutionary.

San Quentin does not provide safe drinking water for prisoners. Recycled sewage water pushes through these 1852 pipes—staff buy bottled water. Non-contaminated drinking water is a basic human necessity.

As a few of the 34 state prisons slowly close across California, the prison budget continues to grow. The entities and individuals who feast on the prison economy will resist true prison reform—this is their cash cow. We don’t need pretty prisons, we need less incarceration. Let’s invest in people, not in prisons.

When one of two state prisons in Susanville was slated for closure, the town protested. They sued to stay in bed with the Prison Industrial Complex. They lost. Sectors of society in California subsist off this plantation economy. We can’t have real reform when prisons are viewed as profit-making mechanisms.

Prisons in the United States stem from slave plantations. Humane plantations and perfect prisons don’t exist. Racism is at the heart of American prisons. Slavery continues to be legal in prisons pursuant to the 13th Amendment to the Constitution.

Over-incarceration of Black and Brown bodies fills these inhumane spaces. At 2.3 million, America cages 25% of the world’s prisoners with only 4.4% of the world’s population. The United States is No. 1 in mass incarceration.

The last of us, 500 death row prisoners, must have disappeared from San Quentin Rehabilitation Center this year. This transition helps justify the new name and cleanse the death row stigma. And there is the irony of having death sentence prisoners at your “California Model—that will lead the nation.”

The Norwegian model works for Norway, as it should. Norwegian prison guards are actually trained in social work and psychology. California prison guards only need a high school diploma. Norway doesn’t have the death penalty, LWOP (life without parole) or life sentences. And Norwegian prisoners are mostly Caucasian.

In America, we start with a stolen continent, genocide, enslavement and Jim Crow laws. We are legally less than humans. History and culture cannot be erased. This is not Norway.

We’ve all been acculturated into accepting the inevitability of wrongful convictions, unfair sentences, racial bias and racial disparities, and discrimination against the poor.

—Bryan Stevenson

I’ve suffered for 26 years of wrongful incarceration. Where’s the transformation for this trauma? Will it be included in the next gulag reform package? Squatting on this concrete couch, struggling for freedom and abolition, I am making the best out of a wrongful conviction. I’ve earned my paralegal degree along with five associate degrees. Imagine eradicating wrongful convictions and allowing that to be the California Model for the nation to follow.


Donald Ray Young has been an incarcerated person for three decades. He obtained a paralegal degree and is currently studying law with the purpose to fight for his exoneration.


  • Community Alliance

    The Community Alliance is a monthly newspaper that has been published in Fresno, California, since 1996. The purpose of the newspaper is to help build a progressive movement for social and economic justice.

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