A unique partnership is forming behind the walls of San Quentin State Prison between two groups that typically clash.
San Francisco District Attorney George Gascon has been quietly leading a team of prosecutors into the prison and meeting face to face with the men locked up inside. It’s an effort to humanize the criminal justice system, improve rehabilitation efforts, and push the evolution of criminal prosecutors. No program like it exists in the country.
“I believe that people need to be held accountable, and we certainly do that,” Gascon said. “But I also believe we have to give people an opportunity to come back and be part of our community.”
Gascon said prosecutors have never struggled filling jail cells, but he said the justice system often misses the mark when it comes to rehabilitation. Now, Gascon and his office are challenging the notion a prosecutor’s job is done when a defendant goes to jail.
“The traditional way of doing our work is you lock them up and don’t worry about it until they come back again,” Gascon said. “What we’re trying to do is move away from that and say, ‘maybe we participated in locking you up, but when you come out, we want to facilitate you coming out and not going back again.’”
Vaughn Miles, an inmate serving 29-years-to-life for his role in an Oakland murder, shared his story while sitting in an unlikely circle of inmates and prosecutors. He’s called the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation home for the past 22 years.
“That’s a whole lot of guilt, that’s a whole lot of shame, that’s a whole lot of remorse, that’s a whole lot of regret,” Miles said. “If you genuinely sit with that like I have in here for the past 22 years, it’s bound to change me.”
Miles said he’s dedicated those years to self-transformation. After putting in years of work on himself, he’s now a state-certified crisis counselor and leads many of the prison’s therapy groups.
“I would hope that [the public] keeps in mind that although we need to be punished because we committed a crime, we’re not past rehabilitation,” Miles said.
The reality, Gascon said, is that most of the offenders his office puts away will return to the community at some point. Recent criminal justice reform efforts in California mean inmates are getting out even sooner, including many who have long expected to die behind bars.
Gascon said he wants his office to help make those transitions successful.
“We question why people reoffend, why people are unable to be successful,” Gascon said. “That’s because we as a society are not providing an opportunity.”
The seeds of collaboration were planted about five years ago inside the newsroom of San Quentin News, where Steve McNamara, the former owner of Marin County’s Pacific Sun newspaper, volunteers as an adviser. His daughter, Marisa Rodriguez, happens to be an Assistant District Attorney.
- San Quentin News, the prison's inmate-run newspaper, also covered this story. You can read that story by clicking here.
“My daughter Marisa, who is the Assistant DA, asked me one day why in the world I spend so much time with a bunch of criminals in San Quentin Prison,” McNamara said. “And I said, ‘well, they’re not quite the way you might imagine them, why don’t you come in and have a look?’”
Rodriguez said she agreed to visit, albeit with some apprehension. After all, she was a prosecutor whose office was responsible for incarcerating many of the men inside. But she says that apprehension turned into a sense of awe once she realized how much rehabilitative work the men had gone through.
“It was almost like a light bulb went off and I was like we really need to get our leadership in our office here to San Quentin to see this,” Rodriguez said.
Rodriguez began working with inmate Arnulfo Garcia, the Editor-in-Chief of San Quentin News, to shape the program. Garcia had come up with the idea of holding forums inside San Quentin, and thought the District Attorney’s Office would be a perfect fit. Rodriguez brought the idea to Gascon, who soon visited himself. He called the experience life-changing.
“When we leave here, we don’t walk out of here and go on with our daily lives,” Rodriguez said. “This impacts us a great deal.”
Rodriguez said the program is already paying dividends. The District Attorney’s Office recently created an advisory board geared toward rehabilitation and reentry made up of prosecutors and formerly incarcerated individuals.
Prosecutors are also working with inmates on ways to divert young offenders from the prison pipeline.
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?”
Now, Gascon wants to get other district attorneys on board. In January, he brought in 40 district attorneys from other major U.S. cities to San Quentin to witness the program for themselves. While he sensed some initial skepticism, Gascon said they all came away impressed.
As for Vaughn Miles, his first parole board hearing comes up next year. He’s hoping for a new chance at freedom.
“There’s a lot of us in here who have done some deep, deep work,” Miles said. “That could be very effective in the community.”