Index of all columns


January 18, 2012

Column 53

I wanted to talk about some of the changes here at San Quentin's death row, in the years since I first wrote about them in my early columns. There have been many changes and for the most part, the changes have been negative with the prisoners. The majority of the changes have been out of necessity because of the increase in the number of death row prisoners. I suspect there will be more changes coming, in the near future, as well.


Before I talk about some of the changes, I want to mention one of the biggest potential changes that could affect those of us who are sentenced to death, here in California. There is currently a petition drive to get the abolishment of the death penalty onto the ballot November California election. The last I heard, more than 60% of the California voters still support the death penalty. However, because of economic reasons, many say they are willing to abolish the death penalty. If this does make it onto the ballot and is passed by the voters, those who presently are sentenced to death probably would have their death sentences commuted to life in prison without the possibility of parole, LWOP as it is commonly known. If the initiative is approved by the voters, it would probably be challenged in the courts by the pro-death penalty groups. So it would take time to work its way through the legal system. As a result, it would probably be years before the initiative is resolved, one way or the other.


When I first got here to death row, the population of death row was between 250 to 300 prisoners. They were spread out over the three locations in the prison where those sentenced to death were kept. The Adjustment Center, or A/C as it is called, is where most of the high-security prisoners are located. It is the most secure part of the prison. There is North Seg, where the least problematic prisoners are kept. Then there was Eastblock. When I arrived here, Eastblock was the main part of death row, as it is today. The difference being, 20 years ago there were about 150 condemned prisoners in Eastblock. Now Eastblock is filled with only condemned prisoners, numbering about 530 people. The death row population is now around 720 prisoners, so it has close to tripled in number since I got here.


Because of the number of prisoners, the prison opened up another section of the prison for death row prisoners. This is called C-Section and the prisoners housed in this area are those who have had disciplinary problems that are not serious enough to be placed in the A/C. There are now four sections to death row.


One of the major changes to those on death row has been to the exercise yard program. 20 years ago there were three separate yards for the Eastblock death row prisoners. A prisoner was assigned to a particular yard for various reasons. This was not a problem because there are six individual yards in Eastblock. At that time a prisoner was able to go to the exercise yard for a few hours every day, if they wanted to.


There are now 7 yard groups to share the 6 yards in Eastblock. As a result, prisoners are allowed exercise yard time three times a week. Often it is less, depending on other things going on in the prison. Now there are three days of visits per week. There is a very limited number of visits allowed day. Each visit is for two and half hours and the visitor has to call a week in advance to secure one of the available visiting times. Before this, everyone visited in a common room. Now each visit is in a cage with just you and your visitor. This includes legal visits from lawyers. Most death row visits are from attorneys.


When I first got here, there were two hot meals a day and you got a sack lunch. A guard would serve the meals from a hot car, going from cell to cell. The meals were not extravagant, but they were hot and you were able to choose what you wanted from the cart. Some years ago the prison eliminated the hot carts and started serving the "hot meals" in trays that were prepared in the prison kitchen. Since then meals have been warm (at best) and often the food would be slopped together. Complaining about food in prison is a time honored tradition, I suppose. Many of the prisoners will salvage what they can from the trays and mix it with something they have purchased from the prison store. Needless to say, as a result of budget cuts to the prison funding, it is reflected in the prison meals.


I think one of the biggest changes, for those of us on death row (and in the rest of the California prison system as well) is the quality of medical care. In the past, the medical care was so poor that a study showed there was at least one death in the California prison system each week, which could have been prevented with proper medical treatment. The medical care in the California prisons had become so bad that the federal government had to step in and take over the health care and treatment of prisoners. As a result, our health care has improved dramatically. I don't mean we are getting exceptional treatment, but now we do have basic health care.


The last change I want to talk about is also a positive one. Previously the guards did all the work on death row. All of the cleaning and other day-to-day jobs that had to be done. About four years ago the prison implemented a condemned prisoner worker program. There are about 20 death row prisoners who are now able to be out of their cells and work each day. The prisoners now do all the cleaning and other menial tasks that the guards used to do. These prisoner workers have to meet certain requirements and have to be approved by the prison. No disciplinary problems for example. The workers don't make much money. Maybe $25 a month. But the result of this worker program is the cellblock is cleaner and the laundry and canteen or other manual labor jobs are taking care of by the prisoners. It also frees the guards to perform their other duties here on death row.


There are other changes that have occurred here on death row, over the years. I just wanted brush on the more significant ones. I have talked about all of these topics in previous columns I have written, but I thought it made sense to try and update all this in one go. I hope it is interesting for you to read about.


One last thing before I go. The governor of California (Jerry Brown) is talking about cutting $1.1 billion from the prison budget in the next fiscal year, so I am sure there will be more changes as a result. It looks like the 1980s and 1990s campaign to get tough on crime and build new prisons is finally starting to take its toll. Maybe it will result in some positive changes in the future.


Best wishes,  

Dean Carter

P.O. box C-97919
San Quentin Prison
San Quentin, California 94974 USA