By Boston Woodard
I wasn’t sentenced to death before coming to prison, but wound up on death row, not literally where I would eventually be executed via California’s state-sanctioned death penalty law. I was on death row by choice. I worked on San Quentin’s death row as a clerk with several other mainline prisoners.
In the mid-1980s, with limited typing and writing skills, I applied for an open clerk position on death row. I got the job where I worked until 1989 after I was cleared of any gang association or illegal drug activities.
My job consisted of organizing yard schedules, commissary (“prison store”) lists, library/book requests, laundry lists and other unrelated job duties such as working the food carts, mopping the tiers “and all other duties as required” according to the (then) job description.
During California’s prison building frenzy of the 1980s, prison clerks were paid on average $20–$30 per month. Most of those (prisoner) job assignments throughout the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation (CDCR) are filled these days by thousands of “office technicians and administrative assistants” who receive north of $45,000–$50,000 annually doing pretty much the same work prisoners accomplished for coffee and cigarette money, saving taxpayers millions yearly.
From the late 1970s (when California reinstated the death penalty after a short moratorium) until the mid-1980s, prisoners on death row in California were permitted to work on job assignments outside their cells. The men on death row were permitted to work jobs consisting of porter duties, clerks’ positions and food service chores. There were other tasks and responsibilities restricted to death row housing and several other lockdown units, which includes the Security Housing Unit, where men on the row could work.
During George Deukmejian’s reign as governor in the 1980s, according to prison officials, he decided to take those jobs from death row prisoners. After numerous internal appeals and court actions were filed and exhausted by the men on the row, they were not able to regain their jobs. The courts agreed with whatever argument given by the Deukmejian to un-assign death row workers permanently. Deukmejian was also the key orchestrator of California’s prison building boom.
San Quentin’s (then) warden Dan Vasquez allowed some mainline prisoners to fill those job positions on death row and the lockdown units as well. I was one of them. We were reluctant at first to fill those positions. That was the prison politics of the day, which had to be honored. As far as we were concerned, those jobs belonged to the men on death row.
Many of us believed that Deukmejian took their job assignments for political reasons. Death row workers had been assigned to those positions for many years without incident. It was political posturing by victim advocacy groups and conservative state officials who removed them from their assignments. Demonizing and maligning prisoners, especially those on death row, was the smoke screen of the day to win public approval and enhance the prison building agenda.
When it was determined by the men on death row that they were not getting their jobs back after their internal appeals and court filings were denied, and only after we got the “OK” from some of the men on the row, several of us filled those assignments.
That’s the way respect among fellow prisoners was supposed to work. You wait. If there was even the slimmest chance of them regaining their jobs, none of us would have taken the jobs.
California has more than 700 men and 20 women condemned to death. San Quentin’s North Block houses 64 men. North Block is where California replaced the inhumane/antiquated poison gas chamber with today’s inhumane/modern poison lethal injection method of execution. Presently, there is a moratorium on the death penalty in California due to the controversy surrounding the drugs used to carry out executions.
In the 1980s, death row overflow was located in the South Block’s C-Section. Those condemned men were relocated in 1988 to the East Block where the majority of San Quentin’s death row prisoners reside today.
Women on death row are housed at the California Correctional Women’s Facility in Chowchilla. If and when a death sentence is carried out on a woman in California, she will be transferred to San Quentin to be executed per CDCR policy.
Walking into San Quentin’s death row for the first time I didn’t know what to expect. Many of us heard the stories about men on death row who are the “worst of the worst” or that “they will kill you too at the drop of a hat.”
According to the law, you had to have killed someone, then be sentenced to death by a jury of your peers before going to death row. However, did all men and women on death row across the United States receive a fair trial?
Dozens of death row prisoners have been released from their fate with a state-sanctioned execution because of new, indisputable evidence (especially DNA) clearing them of a crime that a jury convicted them of.
According to journalist Elliot Hannon, a new study published online by the National Academy of Sciences takes a shot at determining the rate at which the United States mistakenly sentences innocent prisoners to death. The study’s authors conclude that “based on the statistical data, it can safely be estimated that 4.1 percent, or one in 25 criminal defendants, sentenced to death in the U.S. are innocent.”
That’s probably low-balling the actual number of erroneous death penalty sentences. “We concluded that this is a conservative estimate of the proportion of false conviction among death sentences in the United States,” the study’s abstract reads.
My personal take on the death penalty has always been if there is a possibility of one person on death row being innocent that is reason enough to abolish the entire death penalty process. Many third world countries have discontinued using the death penalty due to the brutal, draconian nature of the process. Why does the United States continue with it?
Just like those prisoners on prison mainlines, many on death row are articulate speakers, writers, artists, teachers and family-oriented people who have hopes and dreams and the ambition to go on with life even under their present circumstance.
Men and women on death row having access to normal program is a reality that either sickens someone to hear or something that others can completely understand. Everyone is certainly entitled to their opinion, but it’s tough to stop someone from trying to do the right thing, even those on death row.
Death row prisoners are intentionally separated from mainline activities. All death row escorts to visits, medical or psychiatric appointments, law library, yard, showers and any other out of cell activities mandate “mechanical restraints” (shackles, handcuffs, leg irons) to and from that activity. No exceptions!
Some death row prisoners are housed in San Quentin’s infamous Adjustment Center (the “AC”), San Quentin’s most secure and “toughest” security housing unit.
In 1971, George Jackson allegedly made an escape attempt from the AC. He was shot and killed by prison guards during the incident. Jackson was a well-known political activist archived now in the annals of prison folklore. According to authorities, Jackson was transferred to the AC because he was a participant in an earlier incident at Soledad prison where a guard was killed.
According to prison officials, those with high public interest concerns or heavy gang affiliation connections are housed in the AC. A different, more stringent set of security concerns associated with movement or activities are enforced for AC prisoners.
While going through the appeals process, many men on death row occupy their time many different ways. Some are involved in a limited hobby program participating in art while others work on their education. There are several book authors and many published writers on San Quentin’s death row.
San Quentin’s East Block is a massive, five-tier security structure. Small, screened, security/holding cages line several walls where death row prisoners wait to be brought to or from an approved activity or appointment. The smell of pungent disinfectant and food from large hot carts stacked with brown plastic serving trays ready to be passed to every cell by the guards’ wafts through the cell block. There are hundreds of single cells with heavy security screens affixed to the bars tightly juxtaposed on each of the five tiers.
Because mainline and death row prisoners are no longer allowed to work freely inside the death row housing unit, some of the clerical duties are now done by the guards but correctional counselors do most of the technical work. Administrative technicians, office assistants and the records department handle the rest of the clerical workload.
There are those who do not want to hear the death row prisoners are anything less than irretrievable miscreants, to say the least. No one can take that from them. I certainly cannot comprehend the pain and anguish victims and their family must live with after experiencing the abrupt, life-altering death of a loved one or friend by murder. It must be a horrendous reality to live with.
Life on death row is what it is. I have been told many times over the years by men on death row that “there is no reason for any of us to give up hope.”
Boston Woodard is a prisoner/journalist. He writes for the Community Alliance and the San Quentin News, has written for the Soledad Star and edited The Communicator. Boston is the author of Inside the Broken California Prison System, which is available at www.amazon.com. Learn more at www.brokencaliforniaprison.com. Contact him at Boston Woodard, B-88207, 2-N-1O1, S.Q.S.P., San Quentin, CA 94974.