Friday 5 June 2015

SAN QUENTIN: A notorious American prison

In 1972, I was given permission by the head of the California Department of  Corrections to visit the state’s main prisons and major jails. The first prison I visited was the San Quentin State Prison that is located just north of San Francisco in Marin County and is just north of the Golden Gate Bridge. The Pacific Ocean borders the west side of the prison. It is both a minimum and maximum security prison. The prison sits on Point San Quentin, which comprises 432 acres (1.75 km2) of desirable waterfront real estate overlooking the north side of San Francisco Bay. The prison complex itself occupies 275 acres (1.11 km2) and the land it sits on was valued in a 2001 study at hundreds of millions of dollars.

Before San Quentin State Prison was built on the outskirts of San Francisco, the prisoners were kept on a prison ship that was called the Waban. The California legal system decided to create a more permanent structure because of overcrowding and frequent escapes aboard the ship. They chose Point San Quentin as its location for the new prison and purchased 20 acres of land to begin with and what later become enlarged and become the state's oldest prison.  It was opened in July 1854. That means that at the time of this writing, the prison is 162 years of age. Of course there are some newer buildings in the prison.  The rudimentary prison, complete with a dungeon and whipping post, was soon overcrowded with 300 swindlers and cutthroats drawn to San Francisco by the Gold Rush.

As of October 30, 2013 the prison had a design capacity of 3,082 but as many as 4,223 were housed in the prison that month.                   

Some people would like to see it closed down and the land used for housing. Others would like to see the prison turned into a historic site and made untouchable by developers. Even though this prison may eventually close, it will always remain a colorful part of both California's and America's past.

For many years, it has been the only prison in California where condemned prisoners were put to death. More on that later in this article. The prison housed women until 1927. After that, only men were placed in that prison.

The buildings include open dormitories without a secure perimeter and they are classed as minimum security. There is also a maximum security part of the prison (Level II) that comprises of open dormitories with secure perimeter fences and armed guards patrolling the compound.  There is also the Reception Center which provides short term housing to process, classify and evaluate incoming inmates and there is the Condemned Unit which of course has high security. There is another unit in the prison that I will talk about later in this article.

When I visited the prison, a great many of the men were placed in cells and they shared those cells with another inmate. Many are still being placed in cells. The cells are quite small. There are times in the day when they are permitted to walk along the walkways and the main floor of the cell blocks. The prison is staffed with approximately 1,700 guards etc.                                                                      

In January 2007, the prison was closed temporarily to new inmates and visitors alike as officials fought to contain a raging gastroenteritis outbreak among roughly 500 convicts and staff members. The virus, which was first detected in December 28, had spread to all of the prison's housing units except a relatively isolated one with only 15 inmates. On death row, about one-fourth of the prison's 620 condemned men had also become sick.

There is a prison yard where the prisoners can mingle and participate in physical activities and sports. The deputy warden took me around the yard in a golf cart. I had an opportunity to speak with some of the prisoners in the yard. I also visited some of the shops where many of the men worked.

I was also taken to the prison’s Death Row. The entrance to it is through a small iron grill connected to a solid door. Above the door is a sign that says Condemned Row.  

In December 1991, fourteen prisoners on San Quentin's Death Row filed a federal lawsuit in San Francisco  demanding the right to impregnate their wives or girlfriends through conjugal visits or artificial insemination. The lawsuit, which quickly drew a chilly reaction from both advocates of death penalty reform and prosecutors, claims the prisoners' constitutional rights are being violated because they are denied the right to have children.

On average, those who are executed spend 16 years in prison before they get a date with death. So far, there have been 11 executions in San Quentin since the death penalty was reinstated in 1978. Twelve condemned inmates have committed suicide and some thirty have died of natural causes during that time. There were 666 inmates on death row in 2007 in San Quentin and in January 2015, there were as many as 743 prisoners on Death Row in that prison.   

I walked through one of the ranges in Death Row and spoke to several inmates on the range however I was told not to talk to Charles Mason. He was born sixteen days after I was born. He led what became known as the Manson Family, a quasi-commune that arose in the California desert in the late 1960s.  In 1971 he was found guilty of conspiracy to commit the murders of seven people: actress Sharon Tate and four other people at Tate's home. The next day, two of his followers stabbed to death a married couple, Leno and Rosemary LaBianca.  All the murders were carried out by members of his group at his instruction. He was convicted of the murders through the joint-responsibility rule, which makes each member of a conspiracy guilty of crimes his fellow conspirators commit in furtherance of the conspiracy’s objective.

As I passed his cell, he called out, “Hey Man. Come here and talk to me.” Of course I could not do it so I just ignored him. Manson's  death sentence was automatically  commuted  to life imprisonment within weeks when a 1972 decision by the Supreme Court of  the United States  temporarily eliminated the state's death penalty. California's eventual reinstatement of capital punishment did not affect Manson, who is currently incarcerated at Corcoran State Prison. He finally stopped asking for parole as he realized that he would never get it.  

I've talked with several of the condemned men who told me that they would not appeal their death sentences. The prospect of rotting in prison for the rest of their lives was less appealing to them. As it turned out, that was to be their fate—life in prison without parole. Meanwhile, the Death Row population is increasing by about 30 inmates a year.

There are, in actuality, four Death Rows in San Quentin. About 68 condemned inmates are housed in the original Death Row, built in 1934. That was the one I walked through. Then there is North-Segregation, a quiet cell block that houses the privileged class—inmates who get along with other prisoners and don't cause trouble. The third unit is where 415 less fortunate condemned inmates live. It is called the East Block that is a crumbling, leaky maze of cells built in 1927. It is more like a giant five-story cage, echoing with the incessant chatter and shrieking cacophony of sounds typically heard in prisons. The fourth unit is called the Adjustment Center, where the “worst of the worst” are held under heavy guard and in isolation. These inmates get their exercise in 8-by-10-foot cages watched over by gun-wielding guards. The Adjustment Center is where Richard Allen Davis has lived since he was convicted for the kidnap and murder of 12-year-old Polly Klaas in Petaluma in 1993. Davis had been assaulted and spat upon by other inmates in Death Row at least three times. Besides killing a child, many inmates blame Davis for the three strikes law—the law that says if you commit three felonies, you will spend 20 years to life in prison for your last felony you committed. He's very well aware that any inmate, if they get a chance, will attempt to kill him.

It had a small gas chamber when I visited the prison in 1972 but since 1996, executions at the prison have been carried out by lethal injection. I sat on one of the two metal chairs in the gas chamber and talked with the deputy warden who sat on the other chair.

He told me of an interesting incident that occurred in the gas chamber on May 2, 1960.  The condemned man was Carol Whittier Chessman. He was the only man who was executed in California as an indirect result of him  committing anal and oral sex with his victim because when he dragged his female victim 22 feet from her car, the court considered that kidnapping and in that era, kidnapping was an offence punishable by death. 

He went through years of appeals and even wrote four books—Cell 2455, Death Row (1954), Trial by Ordeal (1955), The Face of Justice (1957) and The Kid Was a Killer (1960). He sold the rights to his autobiography, Cell 2455, Death Row to Columbia Pictures, which was made into a 1955 film of the same name.

Governor Brown was unable to grant Chessman executive clemency as the California Constitution requires the commutation of a two-time felon's death sentence to be ratified by the California Supreme Court.  In Chessman's case, the court had voted not to ratify it by a vote of 4-3.  Exhausting a last-minute attempt to file a writ of habeas corpus with the California Supreme Court, Chessman finally went to the gas chamber at San Quentin Prison on May 2, 1960. Shortly after the execution had started and Chessman was already reacting to the cyanide gas, the telephone rang. The caller was a judge's secretary informing the warden of a new stay of execution. The warden responded, “It's too late. The execution has begun.” As the process had already started, it was impossible to stop the fumes or open the chamber door and remove Chessman without the fumes killing others nearby. Due to her nervousness, the secretary had initially dialed the wrong telephone number and lost valuable seconds in getting the call through.

Dying by potassium cyanide  which turns into hydrogen cyanide gas is a horrible way to die. It is colorless and extremely poisonous when it is a liquid. When used as a means of an execution, it is egg-shaped and hard and is then dropped into a small container behind the chair the condemned person is sitting in. The potassium cyanide dissolves in sulfuric acid that is already in the container. It is then that the fumes begin filling up the chamber. Cyanide ions interfere with iron-containing respiratory enzymes of a human body. The victim begins choking to death. Jimmy Lee Gray in 1983, frantically gasped, moaned, and slammed his head into a steel pipe for ten minutes as the cyanide slowly took effect. He cried out, “It’s taking too long.”

It certainly took far too long to submit the condemned men to die in that manner which is why California chose to use lethal injection as a means of executing its murderers. They removed the chairs and replaced them with a gurney.

I hope you have found this article interesting and informative.

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