What it’s like on California’s Death Row

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In the November election, California voters will face two very different ballot propositions focused on the future of the death penalty in the state. These propositions have increased public and media interest in capital punishment, and in response, California prison authorities have given journalists rare access to the state’s death row at San Quentin Prison.

Perched scenically on the north side of San Francisco Bay, not far from multi-million dollar homes, San Quentin has the largest death row in the country, with nearly 750 men awaiting execution. Women sentenced to death are held at Chowchilla Prison in California’s Central Valley.

To better understand day-to-day life on death row, KCRW joined a tour of San Quentin. We were allowed to speak to any prisoner we wanted, provided the inmates signed a release. But we were required to wear knife-resistant vests meant meant to protect a person from makeshift blades that could be wielded by a death row inmate.

Journalists wearing knife-resistant vests go through a security checkpoint on the way to California's death row facilities. Photo: Saul Gonzalez
Journalists wearing their knife-resistant vests go through a security checkpoint on the way to California’s death row facilities. (Photo: Saul Gonzalez)

After passing through security checkpoints to get to San Quentin’s death row facilities, the sheer number of people awaiting execution in California became much less abstract. During a regular midday recreation break, hundreds of death row inmates talked and milled around an outdoor exercise yard.

As we stood on the other side of a security fence, we were approached by inmate Anthony Bankston, who was calm and friendly as he described what got him on death row.

“Im here for homicide. Two murders,” said Bankston.

The murders, committed in 1991, stemmed from a gang conflict in the Los Angeles area. Unlike many people we talked to on death row, Bankston readily admitted his guilt.

“Oh, absolutely. I did terrible things brother, terrible things that I’m not proud of.”

Inmate Anthony Bankston on San Quentin’s death row exercise yard. Convicted of murdering two people L.A. area men in a gang rivalry, Banktson admits his guilt and accepts his punishment. “Being here on death row is a kind of occupational hazard,” he said. (Photo: Saul Gonzalez)

Like Bankston and the other men in the exercise yard, inmates who don’t misbehave on death row are allowed to socialize outside their cells. They’re also permitted to have small luxuries, like television sets, radios, books and paper. They can also make monitored calls of up to one-hour in length to their lawyers and family. That’s done when phones on casters are wheeled up to their cells.

A condemned inmate making a permitted call to the outside world. Death row inmates are allowed to order small items from prison-approved catalogues. (Photo: Saul Gonzalez)

But condemned inmates who attack guards or other prisoners are locked up in San Quentin’s Adjustment Center. It’s a kind of death row within death row, where inmates are allowed fewer privileges and face more security. Adjustment Center prisoners aren’t allowed to keep electronics in their cells and must be escorted by two guards instead of one when walking San Quentin’s grounds.

When Adjustment Center inmates are let outside for exercise, each one is kept inside an individual steel cage. Similar to what you might imagine seeing in an old fashioned zoo. The cages are meant to protect the prisoners from each other and insure the safety of prison guards.

It’s here that we met Joseph Perez, convicted of murdering a woman during a home invasion robbery in the Bay Area.

“It’s a miserable ass life in prison,” said Perez. “Bering surrounded by a fucking concrete coffin, concrete and steel. Surrounded by people you wouldn’t communicate with on the street.”

Death row inmate Joseph Perez in a San Quentin exercise cage. He was sentenced to death for helping to kill a Contra Costa County housewife with two others in 1998. Perez denies his guilt, but is afraid he’ll die at San Quentin, if not from execution than old age.  (Photo: Saul Gonzalez)

But for all of the misery and hardship on California’s death row, there’s something important to remember: few people are actually executed.  Since 1979, only 13 people have been put to death in the state and no one has executed in since 2006.

There are many different reasons for the lack of executions. They include a long constitutional challenge to California’s capital punishment system; legal disputes over the use of lethal injection as the preferred method of execution; and perhaps, most importantly, just how slowly death penalty cases work their way through California’s legal system, particularly when they are being appealed.

Death row inmate Joseph Perez has experienced the molasses-like process firsthand. He’s been at San Quentin for more than 15 years and is still fighting his conviction through the appeals process with no conclusion in sight.

“We don’t get attorney for at least five years,” said Perez. “Then, once you get attorneys it takes another possible 10 years for everything, for your records to be corrected, for your attorneys to file all their motions and all that. Then after that, it take another five, six, seven years to even hear your arguments.”

Perez, who is 45, said he’s more afraid of dying of old at San Quentin as he fights his legal battle than being executed.

“Yeah, I don’t want to be an old, decrepit man walking the prison yard,” said Perez as he leaned against his metal exercise cage.

Death row inmates being escorted back to their cell block by guards. Many condemned men grow old at San Quentin as challenges to their sentences work their way through California’s legal system. Along with a long appeals process, every death sentence in the state must be reviewed by the California Supreme Court. (Photo: Saul Gonzalez)

To fix what’s widely acknowledged to be a broken capital punishment system in California, there are two competing propositions on the state’s November ballot.

Passage of Proposition 62, which is supported by many civil rights groups, would end the death penalty and replace it with life without the possibility of parole. It would also be retroactive and apply to prisoners already on death row.

Supporters of Proposition 62 argue state sanctioned executions are morally wrong and say the existence of capital punishment might mean innocent people could get executed by mistake.

They also say ending the death penalty would save California about $150 million a year. That money is now spent litigating death sentence cases and operating San Quentin’s death row.

But Proposition 66 supporters, many of whom are from law enforcement, say “mend it, don’t end it” when it comes to the death penalty in California. They say some crimes are so heinous, death is the only just and punishment.

If it’s passed, Proposition 66 would reduce costs and speed up the process by putting a cap on the number of petitions challenging death row convictions and putting a time limit on death penalty reviews by the courts.

Built in 1930, San Quentin’s East Block houses most of the men in California’s capital punishment system, which many say has become too inefficient and burdensome to the state.  Competing November ballot measures take very different approaches to the problem. Prop. 62 would end the death penalty in the state. Prop 66 would keep it legal, but streamline it, shortening the time between conviction and execution. (Photo: Saul Gonzalez)

Like people outside the prison, the hundreds locked up on death row also argue about the utility and morality of California’s death penalty.

Death Row inmate Anthony Bankston, who admits his guilt, said he’ll accept whatever proposition voters decide to approve in November, the one that ends the death penalty or keeps it with changes.

“They are both acceptable to me,” said Bankston. “They are both acceptable because of the heinous things I’ve done. I’ve done things that law enforcement don’t even know about.”

But at the Adjustment Center cell block, speaking through a solid metal and plexiglass door, inmate Darrell Smith echoed another view on death row. He said, too often, race and class are deciding factors in who receives the death penalty and who doesn’t.

“I do not believe in state sanctioned murder,” said Smith. “The reality is that it’s arbitrarily applied to black people, Latino people, and poor people in general. I know this is a cliched complaint that you hear in advocating against the death penalty, but it’s true.”

Death row inmate Darrell Smith talking to KCRW through his high security door at San Quentin. Smith believes capital punishment is unfair and racist, targeting blacks, Latinos and the poor more than whites and members of the middle class who get accused of murder. (Photo: Saul Gonzalez)

But whether California ends the death or keeps it with changes, the inmates on San Quentin’s death row know they’ll likely be here for the rest of their lives, whether their lives end by natural causes or lethal injection. Most prisoners learn to settle in for the long-haul, and they even try new activities and hobbies. Writing is especially popular with the inmates.

“I’ve got two death row autobiographies. I’ve got my gang autobiography. And my death row cookbook,” said inmate Albert Jones.

Jones, who is on death row for murdering a man in Riverside County, collected favorite recipes from his fellow condemned inmates and then self-published a book. It also features the last meals the men dream of having if they ever get executed. Jones has included his own.

“I think my last meal would be collard greens, corn bread, ribs, triple chocolate cake, a slice of banana pudding cream pie, and a glass of milk with five ice cubes,” said Jones.

Jones has had plenty of time to think about food and writing. He’s been at San Quentin for 17 years, all in the same cell which is right next door to a cell that’s been turned into a makeshift interdenominational chapel.

A “Death Row Cookbook” written by inmate Albert Jones. Many of San Quentin’s condemned inmates try their hand at writing because of the amount of free time they have. Jones said writing the cook book, which includes prisoners’  food picks for their last meals, has helped keep him sane during his 17 years at the prison. (Photo: Saul Gonzalez)

As California’s condemned watch the years pass, California’s death row continues to grow as more people get sentenced to death, but no one gets executed. San Quentin officials are moving non-death row inmates to other cellblocks to make room for the condemned.

Death row’s newest residents include a 25-year-old man convicted of a double murder in Oakland and Lonnie David Franklin, better known as the notorious Grim Sleeper Murder, who was sentenced to death for killing 9 women and 1 girl.

Gallows humor in the guard area of a death row cellblock at San Quentin. (Photo: Saul Gonzalez)