"One is absolutely sickened, not by the crimes that the wicked have committed, but by the punishments that the good have inflicted." - Oscar Wilde

Wednesday, December 30, 2015

A rare peek at San Quentin's death row, and conversations with inmates awaiting their fates as political battles swirl

A guard stands watch over the condemned prisoners housed in East Block during a media tour of death row at San Quentin prison.
A guard stands watch over the condemned prisoners housed in East Block
during a media tour of death row at San Quentin prison. (L.A. Times)
With the debate over capital punishment in California poised to intensify again in 2016, state corrections officials provided a rare glimpse Tuesday of death row, where hundreds of condemned men await the outcome of legal and political fights that have blocked any executions for nearly a decade.

Corrections Secretary Jeffrey Beard previously denied access to death row, telling The Times it would be too dangerous. But this month he ruled that "there is a legitimate interest" and allowing media access "makes good sense." On Tuesday, nearly two dozen media members were allowed on portions of death row for about six hours.

They were ushered through the four housing units that hold condemned inmates. Journalists were shown San Quentin State Prison's crowded and noisy East Block — largely unchanged since its construction in 1930 — and the newly opened death row psychiatric ward, the first of its kind in the nation.

In both places, large numbers of men lay curled on their cots, reading or wearing headphones and staring at mute televisions. Some bantered with passing officers. A few were willing to step to the grate of their cell door and sign papers allowing them to talk to reporters.

The state has not had an execution since 2006, and is now taking public comment on a lethal injection protocol that would let executioners decide the killing drug to use based on availability. At the same time, opposing groups are seeking to ask voters in 2016 to speed up executions or disband them entirely.

Almost 700 of California's 745 condemned inmates are housed at the prison in Marin County.

Lt. Samuel Robinson, a former death row guard who is now the public information officer at San Quentin, said the lives of the condemned are similar to those of other inmates.

"The program runs the same. I don't think there's any more desperation. Or any more stress," he said outside the historic prison's fortresslike walls. "Life for them is still the same, whatever that time period is."

But while most California prisoners are housed two to a cell, condemned inmates occupy single cells — sometimes for decades.

Some 500 men live in the cavernous granite-and-steel East Block, where cells are stacked in tiers five high, fronted by narrow steel balconies watched over by armed officers on catwalks.

Some two dozen wheelchairs sit parked outside the cells of aging men no longer able to walk. All of death row's inhabitants are allowed access to tennis court-sized exercise yards four times a week, though many decline. The majority of their time, including meals, is spent in cells behind heavy mesh screens.

Death row is off-limits to most of the activities and volunteers that flood the rest of San Quentin with Shakespearean theater, computer coding and jazz. There is no space in the old buildings for such programs — even religious services in the East Block chapel must be held in a converted shower bay.


Source: Los Angeles Times, Paige St. John, December 29, 2015


A look at the hard life inside San Quentin’s Death Row

Robert Galvan in prison for a double murder in 1996 gets 3 hours outside a day in a secure cell at San Quentin State Prison.
Robert Galvan in prison for a double murder in 1996 gets 3 hours outside
a day in a secure cell at San Quentin State Prison, California.
It’s both a lonely and crowded world inside the country’s largest Death Row, where hundreds of condemned inmates, stripped of nearly every freedom, wait around to die.

But for the more than 700 of the most notorious killers warehoused alone in cells in San Quentin State Prison, death likely won’t come at the end of a needle in the facility’s lethal-injection chamber.

That’s because nearly a decade ago, a federal judge placed a moratorium on capital punishment in California — bringing to a halt all executions.

For the first time since the death penalty was put on pause in the state, reporters on Tuesday got an in-depth look at the cold concrete corridors, locked cells and shackled inmates on California’s ever-growing Death Row.

“I don’t think I’ll ever live long enough to get out of here,” said 67-year-old Douglas Clark, who’s been in San Quentin since 1983. “But you get by. I’ve always been a very Zen person.”

Starting in 1893, 215 inmates were hanged at San Quentin. In 1938, lethal gas became the official method of capital punishment.

From then — when the prison became the exclusive site for executions — until 1967, 194 souls were gassed in the prison’s eerie, 7½-foot-wide, octagonal, green death chamber.

In February 1972, the California Supreme Court found the death penalty to violate constitutional prohibition of cruel and unusual punishment and blocked all executions.

It took until April 1992, with the gassing death of 39-year-old Robert Alton Harris, for an execution to be carried out again.

On Feb. 23, 1996, serial killer William George Bonin became the first California inmate to die by lethal injection.

And Clarence Ray Allen, who at 76 struggled with heart trouble and diabetes, was the oldest and last man executed here. His Jan. 17, 2006, death by lethal injection came about a month after the state put to death 51-year-old Stanley Tookie Williams, the former Crips gang founder.

But those executions raised serious questions about the manner in which capital punishment was being carried out at San Quentin.

Two hours before Michael Angell Morales was set to be pumped full of poisons on a gurney inside the facility’s cramped former gas chamber, his execution was stayed. He remains at San Quentin.

San Quentin's brand new death chamber
San Quentin's brand new $853,000 death chamber
U.S. District Judge Jeremy Fogel of San Jose ruled in February 2006 that the state’s lethal-protocol was badly flawed.

Poorly trained staff, with unclear instructions and little oversight in the dimly lit former gas chamber, risked leaving dying inmates conscious and writhing in pain, violating the constitutional ban on cruel and unusual punishment, Fogel said.

The California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation reviewed its protocols on lethal injections and built a new, roomy death chamber at the prison in 2008 with brightly lit viewing rooms.

No inmate has been executed in the new chamber, looming near the East Block. Only about 16 inmates have exhausted their appeals process and are even eligible to die there.

Whether the new $853,000 death chamber will ever be used remains to be seen.

“It’s almost like it’s not a real punishment,” said Charles Crawford, a 40-year-old prisoner sentenced to die for a 1996 double killing in Fremont. “It’s an abstract thought.”

Click here to read the full article (+ photos)

Source: SF Gate, Evan Sernoffsky, December 30, 2015

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