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San Quentin Blues 

The prison guards' union angrily ripped the rug from under the governor in February

Wednesday, Apr 2 2003
It has been nearly two months since officials at San Quentin State Prison threw open the doors for a day and let a select few media representatives peer inside the fabled penitentiary's death row -- for the first time in 31 years. Eleven journalists were invited. Since then dozens of others from as far away as Germany have called to ask for a similar tour. "Unfortunately, I've had to tell them that what we did in February was a rare, one-time opportunity," says Vernell Crittendon, the prison's information officer.

Although Crittendon's superiors at the California Department of Corrections would hardly frame it as such, the decision to open death row to outsiders, if only for a few hours, was strictly political. The idea of allowing journalists to view the outdated and crumbling quarters where the state's 614 condemned male inmates are housed (condemned women are kept at Chowchilla State Prison) was to help ignite Gov. Gray Davis' push to build a new death row at San Quentin.

Fat chance.

In fact, the governor's proposal to float a $220 million bond issue to pay for new digs for convicted killers at a time when thousands of teachers are getting pink slips and the state is turning its back on everyone from college students to people in need of artificial limbs qualifies as one of the more curious pet projects by a politician in recent memory. That's because it doesn't appear to have a constituency. "I don't know of anyone in the Legislature who thinks it's a good idea," says state Assemblyman Joe Nation (D-San Rafael). He and fellow Democrat Jackie Goldberg, a Los Angeles assemblywoman, warned Davis in a letter that they would not vote for the draconian budget cuts he has put forth to rein in the state's estimated $35 billion budget shortfall unless the death row proposal is excised. San Francisco's powerful Democratic state senator, John Burton, has told lawmakers he's not enamored with the idea. Elizabeth Hill, the independent state legislative analyst, issued a report criticizing the plan as not well thought out, and suggested that it makes more sense for the Department of Corrections to examine the possibility of moving death row to a less expensive location.

Even the California Correctional Peace Officers Association, the politically powerful prison guards' union, which funneled more than $1 million to Davis' re-election campaign, has yanked its support. It was the prison guards whom Davis is widely assumed to have been trying to please in proposing the new death row. But the union angrily ripped the rug from under the governor in late February after he announced the closure of a women's prison in Stockton, a move the guards didn't like. Lance Corcoran, the union's executive vice president, has come out swinging, even calling the Davis proposal "voodoo prison economics."

As a result, sources at the state Capitol and elsewhere say Davis' ambitions for a new 968-bed death row at San Quentin appear doomed, at least for this year. Some lawmakers say they will be surprised if the governor doesn't throw in the towel. "It's an idea whose popularity is only slightly less than the popularity of the governor," says Marin County Supervisor Steve Kinsey, who has long advocated closing San Quentin and incorporating its 432 acres of bayfront real estate into a residential and commercial village that would include a regional ferry port and commuter rail center. According to this vision, some of the prison's 19th-century buildings would be preserved as part of a historical park. "Once again, the governor is standing out there with an idea that doesn't make sense now, and from Marin County's standpoint, ever," Kinsey says.

Regardless of how it plays out, the proposal has rekindled debate over both the future of San Quentin and the wisdom of California's death penalty law. Even ardent opponents of capital punishment concede the need to replace the woeful facilities in which condemned inmates are housed at San Quentin. "It's an issue that doesn't lend itself to easy explanation," says law professor Elisabeth Semel, who heads the Death Row Clinic at UC Berkeley. At a time when taxpayers are being asked to sacrifice, she sees the proposal as "an outrageous expenditure" even while acknowledging that overcrowding on the row "has contributed to conditions that in some respects are inhumane" and unsafe for both inmates and prison guards.

Perched on San Francisco Bay 20 miles north of the city, San Quentin from a distance resembles a sprawling tourist resort, with its cream-colored walls and red-tiled roofs. There are sweeping views of the waterfront and the Marin hills, a point not lost on real estate developers and others who've long salivated over the prospect of clearing the prison and building on one of the best remaining spots for development in the entire Bay Area. But as the state's oldest penitentiary, built in 1851 using forced labor during the Gold Rush, it is also a living relic, with a deteriorating infrastructure to prove it. Until the 1960s, salt water from the bay was pumped in for showers and toilets. During an El Niño storm a few years ago a guard tower almost toppled into the bay, prompting the state to put a 30-foot concrete plug under it for stability. Built to house about 3,000 prisoners, the prison now accommodates more than twice that many.

But nowhere are conditions more severe than on death row, which is actually three separate housing blocks where condemned inmates live in relative isolation from the rest of the population. Once there, they tend to stay awhile. A total of 722 prisoners have been sentenced to death since California reinstated capital punishment 27 years ago. Only 10 have been executed. More than twice as many -- 23 -- have died by natural or other causes. Of those put to death, the time between sentencing and execution averaged 19 years. Although the state has been executing prisoners at San Quentin since before Abraham Lincoln was president, it wasn't until 1934 that the original death house was built. It is still in use, reserved for the best-behaved of the prisoners. But it was designed for only 68 people and therefore can hold only a small fraction of death row inmates.

More than 500 of the condemned live in East Block, a dank, musty, five-tier unit built in 1927 and enclosed by black double-steel doors. Space there is at a premium. Prisoners take showers in two converted cells where leaky plumbing has left a trail of mold and mildew. Yet East Block is a cut above the Adjustment Center, aka the hole, where the most violent of the condemned, fewer than 90 men, including Night Stalker Richard Ramirez, have ended up. Guards working the unit carry pepper spray and wear full riot gear -- helmets, shields, and bulletproof vests -- as part of their daily routine. But Crittendon, the prison spokesman, who took an SF Weekly reporter on a tour of the prison excluding death row, says that at times such precautions aren't enough. "We have had officers punched, stabbed, and human feces and other bodily fluids tossed in their faces by some of these guys," he says. "You can never let down your defenses."

A few years ago, a prison guard distracted by an inmate who had asked him for help while reading a book was hit in the eye by a homemade dart that left him bleeding badly, Crittendon says. Another time, an inmate grabbed a guard's hand as he was delivering food through the narrow opening of a cell and slashed it several times with a razor before the officer managed to pull free. Such incidents led to more stringent security measures, especially in the Adjustment Center, where by policy three guards must be present each time an inmate is moved from his cell for any reason -- one officer with his hands on the inmate, another poised with pepper spray, and a third with a drawn firearm.

Staffers complain that San Quentin's old-fashioned design leaves too many nooks and crannies where prisoners can hide. It lacks modern electronic sliding doors that in newer prisons keep staff and convicts apart. Instead, guards at San Quentin are placed in contact with inmates while feeding them, delivering fresh laundry, or walking them to showers or exercise areas. Personnel safety -- and the fact that the exercise yard is separated from the bay only by a chain-link fence -- has long been the battle cry of the California Department of Corrections and politicians who've wrestled with what to do about the prison, where state law requires that condemned males be executed by lethal injection.

The aging prison has for years resisted efforts to close it altogether. In 1971, then-Gov. Ronald Reagan announced he intended to shutter San Quentin, to no avail. Another closure effort fizzled in 1984. Two years ago, shutdown talk gained renewed steam after the state Department of General Services released a report laying out options for the prison, including the redevelopment vision shared by some Marin County political and civic leaders. But no community in California -- including those where prisons already exist -- is keen on having a new death row built near it. And after so many decades, the criminal defense bar isn't jazzed over the prospect of moving death row to a more distant -- read: inconvenient -- location.

Now comes the governor's bond issue that, if approved by the Legislature prior to a public vote, opponents say, would virtually assure San Quentin's existence as a prison indefinitely.

"I'm going to go to a school tomorrow facing 30 percent cuts in its state funding, and I'm supposed to tell them, 'Oh, by the way, we're going to build a new death row'?" says Assemblyman Nation, a death penalty opponent. "I don't think so."

About The Author

Ron Russell


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