The State Worker

Future is surprisingly uncertain on San Quentin’s death row

Go inside San Quentin’s death row

About 750 condemned inmates are living out their lives on death row at San Quentin State Prison, California's oldest state prison which opened in 1852.
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About 750 condemned inmates are living out their lives on death row at San Quentin State Prison, California's oldest state prison which opened in 1852.

Hundreds of men here live in limbo, condemned to death for heinous crimes, their punishments delayed for reasons political and legal.

Some are well known: Scott Peterson, convicted of murdering his wife and unborn son. Richard Allen Davis, whose murder of Polly Klaas prompted California’s “three strikes” law. “Sweethearts Killer” Richard Hirschfield, awaiting execution for murdering two UC Davis freshmen.

Hundreds of other men – and women – also do time on San Quentin’s notorious Death Row, one shift at a time.

On the best days, working as a correctional officer with condemned men is a boring job. On the worst, it’s a nerve-wracking struggle to control your own emotions and the actions of angry, depressed, manipulative, ultra-violent inmates with nothing to lose.

“Me personally, I have to leave my feelings at the gate,” said Death Row correctional officer S. Salias, who declined to give his full name to reporters during a recent and rare media tour of Death Row and a new psychiatric unit for condemned men. “And when I leave here, I leave my personal stress here.”

Salias was working the third and final gate into a wing of the Adjustment Center, a 102-cell unit where the most violence-prone condemned men live in isolation behind heavy doors that keep them from throwing feces, urine or other bodily fluids at staff.

On Dec. 20, 1980, Richard Hirschfield murdered UC Davis sweethearts John Riggins and Sabrina Gonsalves. A Sacramento Superior Court jury convicted Hirschfield of the crime, and in early 2013, Sacramento Superior Court Judge Michael W. Sweet senten

While other Death Row inmates, like San Quentin’s general population, can briefly congregate in yards enclosed with fences and razor wire, the Adjustment Center’s inmates spend their limited time outside in rows of chain-link cages collectively reminiscent of an oversized kennel.

“One inmate put four staff into retirement” by viciously kicking them, said prison spokesman Lt. Sam Robinson, who worked on Death Row for a decade. The inmate, whom Robinson declined to name, now wears permanent leg restraints, he said.

I don’t ask them how they’re feeling, how they’re doing. I just keep it simple.

Death Row Officer S. Salias, explaining how he limits his conversations with condemned men

As he walked the rowdy East Block that houses more than 500 condemned inmates, exercise yards for condemned prisoners, Robinson engaged in friendly banter and laughs with inmates he knew from his years on the row. “Robby!” several inmates shouted as he passed by.

Salias, however, said he keeps the chit-chat to a minimum. He worries that idle conversation will dull his vigilance, he said, and he places the highest priority on “always being alert” to protect himself and his coworkers.

“Sure, I’ll ask (the inmates) how the weather was outside in the yard or how their night went,” said Salias, who was a district manager for a water company before signing on with the state. “But I don’t ask them how they’re feeling, how they’re doing. I just keep it simple.”

That thinking is common among prison officers who “live this virtually monastic life, locked up with the worst of the worst of the worst,” said Joshua Page, a University of Minnesota expert who has written about California’s prison officers’ union and the state’s criminal justice policies.

“But the stoicism is taxing,” Page said, “So after you work there for a while you have no choice but to form relationships – and that creates another kind of tension, because you have strong feelings about these people and what they’ve done.”

California juries have sentenced more than 900 murderers to die since voters reinstated capital punishment in 1977, but just 13 have been executed. Robinson said he handed the last, Clarence Ray Allen, to the prison’s death team in 2006.

Allen was 50 years old and serving a life sentence at Folsom State Prison for another killing when he orchestrated the murders of three other people. He was sentenced to death in 1982 and spent decades fighting his punishment in court.

Legally blind, Allen used a wheelchair and had trouble hearing in his final years. A few months before his execution at age 76, Allen’s heart stopped. Doctors saved him. He went back to Death Row.

Robinson said he wished Allen “good luck” the last time they spoke.

“You never know how it will play out,” Robinson said, since some inmates have received last-minute reprieves.

On Death Row’s beige-walled East Block, built in 1930, inmates stay alone in one of 520 cells arranged into five tiers accessed by narrow walkways. On an opposite wall, armed officers pace catwalks fronted with coiled razor wire. Inmates shout through the heavily barred and grated doors of their cells.

“Who are you guys?” one inmate asked reporters who were touring the facility.

The answer prompted cursing and shouts from inmates who protested everything from the food they are served to the temperature in the cell block. Several declared their innocence and challenged reporters to investigate their cases. Someone on the second tier used a string with a weight on the end of it to toss several type-written and stapled pages down to a reporter.

Warden Ronald Davis, who was part of the tour, took the papers. It was not clear what the documents said.

Despite the ruckus, “these guys are on their best behavior for you,” prison department spokeswoman Terry Thornton said.

California has not executed a prisoner in a decade, but the issue is poised to take center stage again this year. A federal appellate court recently overturned a district court’s decision that long delays between sentencing and execution violated the Eighth Amendment’s ban on cruel and unusual punishment.

Meanwhile, officials are taking public comments on rules that would give the state flexibility to choose lethal drugs based on availability. Supporters and opponents of the death penalty are hoping to put competing death penalty measures on the November ballot. One would ask California voters to end the death penalty in favor of life without parole. The other would hasten executions by speeding up the legal process.

Although Death Row inmates in San Quentin are more likely to die from old age than execution, juries have continued to mete out the ultimate punishment.

As of Dec. 1, according to state statistics, 699 condemned inmates lived at San Quentin. Another 25 were placed elsewhere to serve other sentences, to appear in court or to receive medical attention or mental health care. About two dozen condemned women occupy the state’s exclusively-female prison in Chowchilla.

While the application of California’s death penalty has evolved over the years, the various Death Row units where staff clock in and out each day remain largely unchanged from when they were constructed over the last 80 years.

Welcome to the happiest place on earth.

The hand-painted inscription beneath a Mickey Mouse clock hung near the entrance of a death row cell block at San Quentin State Prison

Some prison officers carry so many keys that they appear practically armored in them. Wood surfaces at check-in points are worn and notched with decades of use. The uneven surfaces of black bars and railings made with pipes witness to years of painting over peeling, flaking paint. Narrow hallways and stairwells feature spare cinder block surfaces, dimly lit by bare florescent light bulbs.

Occasionally, a bit of gallows humor pierces the gloom. Near the entrance to one Death Row unit, a Mickey Mouse clock hangs on the wall with hand-painted script beneath it: “Welcome to the happiest place on earth.”

Above the entrance itself, a brown sign with white letters, not much bigger than a business card, pays homage to the “Twilight Zone” television show: “We control the horizontal.”

State officials started plans for a new Death Row facility 13 years ago that would have housed 1,152 condemned prisoners on the grounds. During the 2011 budget crisis, however, Gov. Jerry Brown canceled the project. He deemed it “unconscionable” to spend $356 million, plus tens of millions of dollars more for debt service, to build a better Death Row while funds for education and other services were cut.

Despite San Quentin’s age and notoriety, many correctional officers consider it a desirable assignment. Established in 1852 to replace a prison ship anchored off of what was then a remote Point Marin, the facility today is in the heart of the Bay Area. Expansive views from the site stretch from the hills that frame the Richmond-San Rafael Bridge to the San Francisco-Oakland Bay Bridge and beyond.

A prison would never be built in tony Marin County today, said Craig Brown, a former Department of Corrections undersecretary who oversaw prison construction during California’s lock-’em-up boom of the 1980s and 1990s.

“The history of prisons is that they get built in outlying areas,” he said, on cheap land, in local economies starved for jobs and where political resistance is weak or nonexistent.

That described Point Marin in the 1850s and Folsom when California’s second prison opened there in 1880. Today, Susanville, Blythe and other distant outposts have become the new prison frontiers.

Aside from location, San Quentin is a preferred workplace in the prison system because inmates in the general population “program well,” said Chief Deputy Warden Kelly Mitchell. Many earn college degrees through distance-learning education, write for the prison’s award-winning newspaper, learn computer programming, or participate in Shakespearean theater. Most of the 70 or so programs run by volunteers are not offered on Death Row.

“This institution grows on you,” Mitchell said. “A lot of older staff want to retire from here.”

State retirement data show 60 San Quentin employees took their pensions in 2014. A little over half were correctional officers and their supervisors.

The departure of higher-paid senior officers puts a squeeze on administrators must find replacements. The starting pay for correctional officers, $3,925 per month before overtime, is the same for assignments in San Quentin or Folsom or Susanville. So as older, higher-paid officers retire, Mitchell said, it is difficult to recruit and retain junior officers.

“They can’t afford to live here,” Mitchell said, so they must be willing to drive in from cheaper outlying areas. Sacramento commuters pack 19 van pools to the prison, she said.

Still, a relative handful of employees can walk to work because they rent one of the 86 department-owned housing units on San Quentin’s grounds. Monthly rents for the 2-bedroom to 4-bedroom townhomes and detached houses range from $700 to $1,700. The rates are periodically adjusted based on “fair market value rental rates based on the individual houses at the time of inspections and evaluation,” prison spokesman Robinson said in an email.

Some families live on the grounds and their children attend local schools. The warden decides who can move in after considering recruitment and retention and the needs of the prison.

“If there were a natural disaster which impacted the roadways to (San Quentin),” Robinson said, “the prison would be able to modify the operation and still staff, feed, and provide maintenance at the facility” with staff living on the premises.

There is, Robinson said, a waiting list.

Editor’s Note: This story has been changed from print and online versions to put the starting pay of correctional officers at $3,925 per month. Updated at 12:30 p.m. on Jan. 13, 2016.

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