Community Alliance Writer Thrown in the Hole (Again)
By Mike Rhodes
Days before going to press we learned that our colleague Boston Woodard has been put into solitary confinement. Woodard, who writes for this newspaper about conditions inside the California state prison system, has been punished repeatedly as he sends his firsthand reports to us. Because reporters are no longer able to freely interview prisoners, we need to rely on journalists such as Woodard to write about what they are experiencing.
In what appears to be retaliation for telling our readers what is happening, Woodard writes, “I’m in the hole again. No charges. No write-ups. Nada.” But Woodard will not be silenced, and we will continue sharing his saga. He writes, “Now I have a whole new series of articles to write—’cause I’m sure not intimidated.”
In what is sure to be controversial, Woodard sent us the following article (just before being thrown in the hole) about Proposition 34, which would end the death penalty. Although the Community Alliance always likes to give a voice to the voiceless and alternative ways to look at important issues, you might be surprised by what death row prisoners think about Prop 34.
Death Without the Possibility of Parole
By Boston Woodard
In November, California voters will be asked to approve the SAFE California Act (Proposition 34), which would replace the death penalty with a prison sentence of life without the possibility of parole (LWOP).
The death penalty and LWOP prison sentences arouse the passions of opponents and proponents alike, so it’s important to understand the issues more fully, especially voters, who are being asked to address life and death at the ballot box.
Now, I’ve never been sentenced to death row or received an LWOP prison sentence, but I probably know more about these convicts and their circumstances than most people. In the late 1980s, as a prisoner at San Quentin, I worked as a clerk on death row, so I met many inmates. And for more than 25 years, I’ve walked prison mainlines with men serving LWOP sentences.
Unfortunately, if you’re on the outside trying to find out what death row and LWOP prisoners think about Prop 34, you won’t get much help from the mainstream press, at least not the articles I’ve read. What I would like to do is share some of those other points of view with you.
Death row inmate Kevin Cooper vigorously opposes the initiative and its LWOP alternative to death by lethal injection. LWOP prisoners, he notes, must be assigned to Level IV prisons, those with the highest security. “Level IV prisons within the state of California are some of the worst prisons in the world! They are worse than death row,” says Cooper. Violent living conditions, constant lockdowns and a lack of educational programs make rehabilitation impossible. “And many families cannot get to those isolated prisons to visit their loved ones,” writes Cooper, making the punishment even more cruel and unusual. (See www.savekevincooper.org.)
One of the SAFE California Act initiative’s requirements—mandatory work for persons convicted of murder with special circumstances (any money earned by inmates is donated to the state’s victims’ compensation fund)—may be difficult to implement. With Level IV prisons locked down so much of the time, prisoners will be unable to reach their assigned jobs. Those inmates who do find one of the few remaining paid positions in the California prison system can expect to earn about 17 cents an hour.
Death row prisoner Jarvis Jay Masters feels the SAFE California Act initiative will remove the statutory appeals guaranteed under present law. “What about the innocent men and women presently on death row who will no longer have effective legal means to a genuine appeal? Do you morally want to have a legal system that will put to death human beings, even innocent ones?” asks Masters. (See www.freejarvis.org.)
I suspect the vast majority of the 800,000 signatures gathered to put the SAFE California Act initiative on the November ballot were not informed their support would also include obliterating the legal means to free someone who might be wrongly convicted and executed due to erroneous eyewitness accounts, out-of-date forensic testing procedures and overzealous prosecutors.
I firmly oppose any prison sentence that ultimately results in the state’s execution of any human being on death row who might be innocent. It’s also difficult for me to accept the death sentences of those prisoners who die in prison while serving LWOP—even after they’ve spent decades of sincere, conscious effort changing and rehabilitating themselves.
No one has done more to rehabilitate himself than LWOP prisoner and author Spoon Jackson. Incarcerated for 35 years for a crime he committed as a teenager, Jackson began a program of self-rehabilitation on his first day behind bars to cope with what he calls the “other death penalty.” To Jackson, when you change the sentence of a death row prisoner to LWOP, “you offer one prison for another.” (See www.spoonjackson.com.)
“People want to be forgiven. They ask for forgiveness. Why deny redemption to a person who has done everything possible to change himself and his behavior?” asks Barbara Brooks, who began publishing the Sentencing and Justice Reform Advocacy’s newsletter, SJRA–Advocate, to allow prisoners to be heard. “Let their voices go out into the free world and to the legislatures.” (See www.SJRA1.com.)
To death row prisoner Correll Thomas, the SAFE California Act is “an atrocity.” He expresses his concern about possible hidden agendas. What are the motives of the authors and sponsors behind the initiative? “Who are they really working for?” he asks. “Why should my family vote in support of those who are trying to kill me?” (Correll Thomas, P-55743, Death Row, San Quentin, CA 94974)
Masters questions the credibility of SAFE California Act advocate Jeannie Woodford, the former warden of San Quentin State Prison and ex-director of the California Department of Corrections. “I am not the first to say how deeply troubling it is to see this initiative being advocated by a woman who presided over state executions without ever offering an open apology,” he says.
Currently, Woodford is the director of Death Penalty Focus, an organization striving to abolish the death penalty. She has sought support from the prison guards’ union, the California Correctional Peace Officers Association (CCPOA). It’s hard for either Woodford or the CCPOA to have much credibility because both were directly responsible for, or contributed to, the current state prison crisis, which is being sorted out by a panel of federal judges who are addressing the catastrophic mental and physical health problems and overcrowded living conditions in the California state prison system.
Like Masters, I’m troubled by “experts” whose opinions about the SAFE California Act may be based on secondhand knowledge and outdated theories, and who may have a vested interest about what’s best for those men and women who will be directly affected if this initiative is voted into law.
“The LWOP might not be a ‘reasonable sentence’ or even a humane ‘solution,’” adds Douglas Scott Mickey, a death row prisoner who sees some value in the SAFE California Act. “If passed, this SAFE initiative can do what it is intended to do—help keep us alive until the good people of California think of something more forgiving.” (Douglas Scott Mickey, C-73900, NB-S6-30, San Quentin, CA 94974)
Replacing the death penalty with a sentence of LWOP may severely thwart the long-fought efforts of those who believe that prisoners who meet stringent criteria and who are fully rehabilitated should not die in prison.
LWOP prisoner and author Kenneth F. Harman is the founder and executive director of the Other Death Penalty Project. “I support the initiative to do away with lethal injection executions. Nevertheless, it’s important to remember that there are close to 4,000 other prisoners in this state [who have been] sentenced…to the slow, torturous ‘other death penalty’ of life without the possibility of parole.” Hartman favors a yes vote on Prop 34: “Any other vote would be in favor of state-sanctioned executions.” (See www.theotherdeathpenalty.org.)
“I urge supporters of the SAFE California Act to read the whole initiative and to hold in one hand the chance to end the physical death penalty and in the other hand the initiative’s entrenchment of life without the possibility of parole,” adds longtime prisoners’ rights advocate and author Judith Tannenbaum. (See www.judithtannenbaum.com.)
For decades, Maria Telesco has been battling passionately to end the death penalty in California, “as it has been in all other civilized countries and states,” she points out. Still, according to Telesco, “Those who have a strong case for factual innocence fear they will be left forever in prison, with the sentence of life without the possibility of parole, because they say no provisions have been made in the initiative for them to continue their appeals and prove their innocence.”
Some death penalty pundits also believe eliminating the means supporting active death sentence appeals may violate the ex post facto law and should not be terminated when and if the initiative becomes law.
Many groups and organizations who espouse the abolishment of California’s death penalty write in their newsletters and news releases about the hundreds of “innocent men and women” who have been freed from prison in California after proof of being wrongfully convicted, some sentenced to die for crimes they did not commit. However, those same innocent men and women, who are often showcased by the ACLU, will still die in prison after their attorneys are recalled and their active appeals have died out in the courts. Some anti-death penalty and LWOP advocates believe the LWOP alternative is just low-hanging fruit, not a well-thought-out answer to the death penalty.
We must abolish the third world practice of state-sanctioned executions. Everyone wants to live, and no one wants death by lethal injection or death without the possibility of parole.
Boston Woodard is a prisoner/journalist serving his sentence in Susanville State Prison. He has written for the San Quentin News and the Soledad Star and edited The Communicator. Boston is the author of Inside the Broken California Prison System, which is available at Amazon. Learn more at www.brokencaliforniaprison.com.