Open Forum: Governor’s reprieve may not be the news Death Row inmates want to hear
On a sunny day a few years ago, a handful of UC Berkeley students, who were included in a tour of San Quentin State Prison, walked through an outdoor exercise area reserved for prisoners requiring extra security. To their astonishment, they saw convicted murderer Scott Peterson, under guard, doing his workout. A Stanislaus County judge in 2004 had condemned Peterson to die by lethal injection for killing his wife and their unborn child. The tour members gawked while a robust-looking Peterson spoke briefly with the public information officer conducting the tour.
Jessie Lau, a UC Berkeley undergraduate at the time, recalls the moment. “I remember everyone (the other inmates) dropping to the ground, and being quiet when he was brought into the courtyard area. As he walked through, he was smirking and had this confident swagger. He was pretty clean/fit, and seemed well taken care of. He seemed like he was enjoying the attention, and took his time, which made the walk seem longer although it must have been just a minute or two.”
The close encounter with a supposed-dead-man-walking illustrated a prison truth: One should stay out of prison, but if you have to serve a long sentence, California’s Death Row is not a bad option, compared to the main line in the 35 institutions run by the Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation. That’s why Gov. Gavin Newsom’s reprieve for the 723 men and 22 women on Death Row is not the news the condemned may want to hear.
Newsom said he would not sign any death warrants while he’s in office, and he ordered the removal of some of the execution apparatus from the death chamber. Despite the reprieve on executions, the Death Row housing unit was to remain intact. For the time being, the long-term residents are holding on to the valuable perks the state gives them, privileges that main line inmates wish they had. Consider that on Death Row:
The state gives you lawyers gratis to guide your appeal through the courts. The appeals process of the cases will continue in the courts during the reprieve. Other inmates? They pay out of pocket for legal counsel, or they learn how to write their own writs.
You have privacy. San Quentin cells typically measure 4½ feet wide, 7 feet high, and 11 feet long. Death Row inmates however are single-celled; they don’t have to share their space, or body odors, with anybody else. Main line inmates are double-celled within this same space allotment, roughly the size of a walk-in closet, along with a toilet and a sink. Two men cannot pass each other without touching. Occasionally a prisoner will kill his cellmate while his “cellie” sleeps.
Inmates usually don’t have to worry about a beating or a stabbing. The main line prison yard can be hazardous to your health, although Death Row housing is no guarantee of safety. Last year, Death Row inmate Jonathan Fajardo, 30, was fatally stabbed in the chest and neck with an inmate-made weapon while he was in a yard complex at the prison. It was the first killing on Condemned Row since 1997.
If the moratorium were to become permanent, then San Quentin would be in for some drastic changes. What would be the rationale for keeping the 700-odd people on Death Row in the single-celled in East Block if they are never to face execution? Would they have their sentences commuted to life without parole? They would then have to be transported to maximum security prisons elsewhere in the state, because San Quentin’s main line is low security.
The most vocal opposition to Newsom’s plan may come from the Death Row inmates themselves.
William J. Drummond teaches a class at UC Berkeley in which students help edit the award-winning San Quentin News, the newspaper of San Quentin State Prison.