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Inside San Quentin

A day on San Quentin's death row.
CONDEMNED MEN TALKING: A day on San Quentin's death row.

We're at the end of the tour, and nobody has the key to get into the lethal-injection chamber. That seems a little ironic in the moment. It has been a long day at San Quentin State Prison for reporters and corrections staff alike. The four-hour media tour of the death row facilities has gone on for six, and along the way, all day, there have been skeleton-type keys opening big metal-and-concrete doors, numerous ID checks, sign-ins and sign-outs at the three facilities that house the nation's largest population of the condemned.

And now here we are, about 20 members of the media and a handful of San Quentin prison officials, including warden Ronald Davis, milling around outside the door to the never-used lethal injection chamber. Waiting.

Lt. Samuel Robinson is the chief public information officer at San Quentin and has been our lead guide for the tour. Robinson says he worked on death row for 10 years before moving into his public-affairs role, and throughout the day he is greeted by inmates, a couple fist-bumping him as we make our way to and through the three areas that house the condemned: the Adjustment Center, the North Segregation Unit and the East Block, whose 520 beds house the majority of death row inmates at San Quentin.

"They live in a world," Robinson tells reporters that morning, as he searches for the words, "an alternate world, the era when they left the streets ... it freezes them in limbo."

While we wait for the missing key to arrive, Robinson talks about how he was the corrections officer who handed off the last three condemned inmates to the team of officers charged with putting them to death.

Robinson's last words to the inmates were always the same. "I wished them good luck." He defers on the question of his personal feelings about capital punishment. As a state worker, Robinson's not going there. He wished them good luck, that's all.

And so it was that on Dec. 13, 2005, Crips co-founder Stanley "Tookie" Williams (who had been nominated five times for a Nobel Peace Prize and once for a Nobel Prize in literature) was executed. Triple-murderer Clarence Ray Allen was next; his luck, and his appeals, ran out on Jan. 17, 2006.

A month later, Robinson gave Michael Morales the same send-off. Two hours before he was scheduled to be put to death on Feb. 21 at 7:30pm by lethal injection, longtime Santa Clara County judge Jeremy Fogel, a federal judge since 1998, halted the execution after court-appointed physicians refused to inject Morales with intravenous barbiturates. It will be 10 years in February since Morales lucked out, and 10 years since anybody has been executed at San Quentin.

Broken System

San Quentin is a place of many contrasts, and one of the more starkly poignant examples I encounter on the Dec. 27 tour is the difference between accessing the death row facilities and the lethal injection chamber. It provides a handy metaphor for the status of capital punishment in California.

Gaining access to the condemned men in their cells requires reporters to pass through a set of security gates, sally ports and various other clearances, ID checks and metal detectors. It takes a while, just as it takes a while—25 years, on average—from the time an inmate is convicted to when he is executed, leading to a broken capital punishment system that, in 2014, U.S. District Judge Cormac Carney said was effectively a "life sentence with the remote possibility of death," as he declared the California capital punishment regime cruel and unusual because of delays.

That ruling was vacated by the U.S Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit in San Francisco in November on technical grounds—even as it did not rule on the constitutional issue Carney raised. Another hurdle, another gate to pass through before anyone's executed here.

A proposed 2016 ballot initiative would recognize the costly and interminable delays that characterize the system and end capital punishment outright. A similar ballot measure, Proposition 34, was beaten back by death-penalty advocates in 2012 by 52 to 48 percent.

And yet to gain access to the lethal injection chamber, guards just open an innocuous-looking door that faces out to the pleasant San Quentin grounds, steps away from the employee canteen and just a few yards from the highly fortified main entrance—and you're in, just like that. A pro-death penalty referendum also scheduled for 2016 seeks to expedite the appeals process to get the executions flowing again.

Meanwhile, 724 men (and counting) sit on death row at San Quentin. There are between 12 and 16 whose last appeals have been exhausted, says Robinson, but there's no time frame for the resumption of executions. "The if is the question."

SOLITARY MEN: Some inmates in San Quentin's Adjustment Center are confined to their tiny cells 24 hours a day.

Attitude Adjustment

The Adjustment Center, a 102-cell facility built in 1960, is the solitary-confinement tier of San Quentin and most restrictive housing in the prison—and possibly the state.

"A/C" is home to the worst of the worst offenders, not all of them condemned, though about 80 percent are. It's a self-contained prison within a prison, and the guards aren't even allowed out once they check in for their shifts. It's the deepest hole to be found in San Quentin.

This is the first stop on the tour, and it's immediately apparent that we're going to need more of those green anti-stab jackets; there just aren't enough for all the reporters and cameramen, so some from other tiers are collected and made available as we squeeze into an A/C hallway and jostle our way forward to the gate.

The reporters can't all go on the tier at once, so we proceed in shifts through a metal gate, having already passed through two other gates, and that's not including the first three gates we passed through at the tour's outset. Anyone who isn't already wearing eyeglasses has to wear a face protection mask to guard against any bodily excretions flung our way by inmates; we all wear the protective gear until we check out of the prison with our invisible "Get Out of Jail Free" wrist-stamps, as Robinson calls them.

No media person has seen the inside of one of these solitary-confinement cells in more than a decade. A few of the cells are empty, doors swung open, and the officers let me step up to the entrance and enter a foot or so into the cells, keeping a watchful look or, one might say, glare. There's an austere and off-putting peaceful feel that belies the daily dangers and stresses on both guards and prisoners alike; a creepy, treacherous monasticism prevails on this insular tier. But that can change in an instant.

These men here are forever in a routinized and highly choreographed shuffle from one cage to another, and some are "indefinitely in leg restraints" as they are transported from cage to cage, Robinson says.

Two adjoining cells give a sense of the kind of privileges one can earn, whether an inmate is on death row or serving out a lighter sentence elsewhere in San Quentin, whose population hovers around 3,700. There are two kinds of prisoners that transcend the Level 1 to Level 4 classification system (the A/C is Level 4), Robinson explains. There's Grade A and Grade B. Grade A follows the rules; Grade B doesn't.

One cell has a TV and walls filled with thong-wearing Latina pinups, while the next one over is absent any visible personalized touches beyond rolled-up white socks and a manila folder or two. According to online prisoner resources, death row inmates went on hunger strike here in 2013 in order, among other things, to get the same privileges the state affords the non-condemned. Robinson says that the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation (CDCR) gives equal access to earned privileges, regardless of one's classification. But nobody in San Quentin is streaming Netflix.

The TVs are hooked into antennas and reception is limited to network television. Inmates can also listen to the radio. They spend all of their time in these cells except for three-and-a-half hours of yard time, three days a week.

This morning, there's only one inmate in his cell willing to talk to reporters, and it's Sunset Strip killer Douglas Clark. Described by Robinson as a "prolific serial killer," Clark was associated with Carol Bundy and, rumor has it, with her relative, Ted.

Clark says he has been in solitary confinement for 33 years and that "this is actually the best facility that they have." Nobody visits him, he says, but he makes the best of his time. Reporters press their mics against the vent of his closed-front cell door and shout questions at the inmate, who shouts right back. He wears a straw hat and gives great quotage to the line of media waiting their turn. "You're a reporter's dream," one reporter tells him.

Tale of Two Cells

San Quentin is really two prisons; its general population is among the least violent in the California prison system, even as it houses the most violent offenders in the state.

It's a prison that benefits mightily from a generally empathic Bay Area demographic with a volunteer cadre of 4,000 people who provide all kinds of programming, and Davis says the programs are what keep the violence in check.

And while San Quentin is famous for its Shakespeare productions and other reform-minded efforts at rehabilitation, little of that is available to the condemned. About a hundred of the condemned have access to hobby and craft programs, but that's about it as far as programming goes, Robinson says.

There are no restorative justice programs for the condemned, either, no opportunities for inmates to meet with survivors of their mayhem, Davis says, because of security issues around inmate-civilian contact, a key aspect of restorative justice.

The contrast between general population and the condemned plays out in the functioning and upkeep of death row itself. Prison labor built the new $850,000 lethal injection chamber, and prisoners are also at work on a project to retrofit cells in San Quentin's Donner building to expand death row capacity by 97 beds. That unit will open this month or next, Robinson says.

As we stand in the A/C, Robinson tells me about another inmate here whose penchant for violence ended the careers of four corrections officers. We'll meet him soon enough.

We leave the tier and wait in another sally port before gaining access to the A/C yard, which consists of a couple dozen single-man "walk-alone" cages with sinks and toilets, and one larger yard for inmates who have mingling privileges. There's only one inmate in there this day, one of about 10 men in the cold rows of cages—pacing, talking among themselves, doing pull-ups, mostly in white shorts and sneakers, though a couple wear prison-issued sweats. It's a little chilly.

The protocol is a little unclear, so I set off into the wilderness of cages and approach a very large and shirtless Latino man.

I tell him it's a media tour of death row and that I want to interview him—but I've apparently gone a little off the reservation, as an officer tells me to get back with the rest of the reporters, who have gathered around another cage.

"They're censoring you!" the man shouts as I rejoin the group—then subsequently passes on the opportunity to sign a required consent form to talk with reporters. A little while later, Robinson tells me that was the very inmate who ended those corrections officers' careers. He seemed so friendly for a second there.

Reporters are gathered around the cage that houses Robert Galvan, a seriously bad man. "I deserve to be here," Galvan says as he talks about life on the Adjustment Center tiers, where there is "absolutely zero privacy."

The book on Galvan is that he had so many assault with a deadly weapon charges, including one for assaulting a corrections officer, that prosecutors stopped pursuing them after stringing together three consecutive life terms. His capital crime occurred while he was already locked up: Galvan killed his cellmate.

The pro-death penalty referendum on the docks for 2016 seeks to end the practice of housing the condemned in one-man cells, to save money. California spends almost $200 million a year in costs associated with its stalled capital punishment regime.

I ask Galvan what it feels like to be on death row in a state that almost never executes anyone. "It's like being left on a shelf," he says. "I feel like that's torture."

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