June 6, 1995

Column 2

Hello, I want to begin with a quick explanation regarding the last piece I wrote. Someone asked me to define what I mean by "normal". I suppose that my perspective on normal is different than you out there would think of it. Normal, to me, is someone that just wants to be left alone and minds their own business, and you can turn your back on them without worrying about being stabbed. They don't bother anyone unless they are bothered, and then they will do what needs to be done to deal with the problem. Enough of that for now.

I want to talk about what it was like to come to Death Row so in this piece I will start to describe the physical part of San Quentin and later I will get into life here in more detail. I want to use the next couple of pieces to describe what it looks like and the process to get to the point where I am. To help in this, there is now a photo of San Quentin included on this page. There are lines drawn to point out the relevant parts that I plan on talking about. Hopefully it will help you to get a grasp of what I am talking about.

Most guys are transported to Death Row by the County Jails where they went to trial and were convicted. As my jail bus pulled up to the front gate, I felt a number of things: curiosity, dread, anger, and an enormous amount of tension. I can remember two things that kept running through my head. I suspect that it was my sub-conscious babbling under the stress I felt. One thing that kept running through it was a paraphrase of that line in the Wizard of Oz, "You're a long way from home now, Toto!" And that was alternated with scolding myself for the mess I had managed to get into.

When I walked through the gates and entered the inner prison, I felt the hairs on the back of my neck stand up and I felt a chill deep inside of me that wasn't related to the weather. I felt as if I had stepped back in time one hundred years. It was really an eerie feeling. But I didn't have time to dwell on it because things were going too quickly. I was taken to R&R (Reception and Release) to get processed into the prison. Here I was photographed and fingerprinted, issued blankets and prison blues. Once this was done, two guards showed up to escort me to the Adjustment Center, or A/C. This is where all Death Row inmates are placed when they first arrive. They stay here until they can see the Classification Committee and they determine which part of Death Row that you will be placed in.

There are three places in San Quentin that they keep Death Row (or Condemned). In A/C is where everyone goes first and may possibly have to stay. The other parts are North Seg. This is the original Death Row and holds about 35 condemned. The people placed here are the ones that have not been a behavior problem in the prison. It is here where the Gas Chamber is located. Then there is Condemned Row II. This is located in East block and there are approximately 250 condemned Inmates here. East block on the inside is a lot like one of those old Zeppelin Balloon hangers. A huge cavern, ringed by gun rails where guards walk back and forth armed with machine guns and a revolver. In the center on this large cavern is a cell block that has 5 tiers of cells and a sixth floor which is used for storage and other various functions for the cell block. On the Bayside of this cell block is where the condemned are kept and on the Yard side is where they keep the guys from the mainline population. These are guys that have gotten into trouble out in the main prison population or guys with serious mental problems and need to have a close eye kept on them.

After being processed through R&R, I was escorted to the A/C where I was processed once again. This consisted of the guards taking all of my personal property except for a pencil stub, a few sheets of writing paper, and some stamped envelopes. I was also allowed to keep my comb, bar of soap, and was given some tooth powder. They issued me a toothbrush with most of the handle cut off. The guards put you in a cage as soon as you enter the building and you strip all of your clothes off which they run through a x-ray machine. Then they search your entire body, the hair, inside the ears, in your mouth, bottoms of your feet, under your balls, and then they tell you to bend over and crack a smile . . . , which is bending over, so they can look in your butt. Once this is completed, they put handcuffs on you and take you out of the cage and run a metal detector over your entire body. Once this is complete, you are put in your cage to get dressed.

After they process you into the A/C, they will assign you a cell. There is one condemned man per cell. In the A/C, there are three floors with 30-35 cells per floor. Two guards will escort you to your cell and once you reach it, you stand in front of the cell door and the guard yells, "Open cell # ___," and there is a sudden whoosh as your cell door pops open. It sounds like the brakes on a large semi-truck because they are opened and closed with compressed air. Once you are inside of the cell, the guard yells to close the door and it makes another whoosh as it slams shut with a loud bang. Then the guard will open the tray-slot (which they pass your meals through) and remove your handcuffs.

Inside of the cell, there is a stainless steel sink and a toilet and a bed that is made of a sheet metal plate and covered with a pad about 1.5" thick. This is your bed. On the wall above your bed is a bare light bulb that throws off a dim glow. Also, there is a sliding panel in the back wall that the guards can open and look through. At the front are the bars, which are covered with a fine mesh that you can just about poke a pencil through. I will talk about these in another piece.

You will stay here in the cell, only getting out for a brief (8 minutes or so) to shower. After a few days and usually within a week at the most, you will go in front of the Classification Committee and they will review your file and determine where to place you. I will get into that the next time, but I'm outta here for this one.