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25th March 2003

Column 37

Some years ago, when I first started writing these, I talked about the physical aspect of what it is like here on Death Row. That was a long time ago and there have been changes since then. Actually there have been a lot of changes. Many of them minor ones and some not so minor. One of the major changes to be made, even though it hasn't happened yet, is the approval of building a new death row to house all the condemned prisoners. The new death row is supposed to be built here on the same grounds at San Quentin Prison. It is still a couple of years in the future before that happens though.

The new Death Row hasn't even been designed yet, from what I understand. I have mixed feelings about them building a new Death Row. From a purely mercenary point of view, the money they will spend for this could be much better used for other things. If the death penalty was abolished, it would save an enormous amount of money for the public. But that doesn't seem likely. Since they will continue with the death penalty, they do need a new facility to house all those who are sentenced to death.

One of my misgivings about this new facility is how the prison will use this as an opportunity to take away even more, of what little we have. It will be even more restrictive than it is now. Over the past 10 years, the prison has been chipping away a little at a time of what we are allowed. Most are things that wouldn't seem important to most of you, so I won't bother to list them, but some of the things they have taken have been very important to us on Death Row.

Visiting is something I talked about in the past. This is one of the areas where there has probably been the biggest change. In the past, visiting was held in a large room with all the prisoners and visitor's mingling. There had never been any problems with this until a few years ago. The Prison then allowed two prisoner's (who were supposed to be kept apart) into the visiting room at the same time. As a result, there was a fight. After this they stopped all visits, except for limited visits through the glass. Finally the visits were reinstated on a limited basis. Instead of an open room, the prison had built cages for the visits to be held in. There are about 14 or 15 cages, so they allow that many visits at a time, see picture. Also, the visitor has to make an appointment a week in advance now. This wasn't the case before this incident that caused the visits to be modified. 
Some people (with suspicious minds) suspect the prison allowed these two prisoners to be in the visiting room at the same time in hopes of an incident happening, so they could take the visits away, I donít know if it is true. I think the prison wouldn't bother with that sort of thing. I think they would just do what they want to do and not have some conspiracy. I have to admit it was very convenient for the prison that this happened. They took full advantage of it. I suspect if the new death row is built, they will limit the visiting even more than it is now.

Another part of Death Row I had talked about before, was the guns that the guards carry on the gunrails. They still have these automatic rifles, but a couple of years ago they also installed these high powered water cannons that shoot out a mixture of water and a chemical that effects the eyes and nose and your breathing. I don't know if it is true, but I heard that the pressure from these water cannons is powerful enough to peel paint off a wall. I do know it is powerful enough to knock a person over at 20 to 40 feet. I think these water cannons were a good addition. 
As I said before, they would shoot people who were fighting, so knocking them over with a water cannon seems more humane. Depending on your definition of humane, I suppose. The guards also use these large guns that fire either rubber bullets, or some sort of wooden projectile. So that's another one of the positive changes that's been made.

I have talked about the A/C before (the Adjustment Center) too. It is where they house the prisoners who are the highest security problems. There was an incident there a couple of years ago. From what I heard, a couple of guys had gotten through a fence in the recreation yard and got into an altercation with some of the guards. I don't know the details of this, so I can't tell you any more then that. After this incident they built cages in the recreation yard, so instead of being able to walk or play basketball, they put one prisoner in a cage and leave them there for the determined amount of recreation time. I don't know how much time they get though. It is probably a couple of hours each time and they are probably allowed in the cages 2 or 3 times a week, but I am just assuming that.

I also mentioned before, there aren't any tables or shelves in the cells. About 7 years ago they installed shelves in all the cells, so that makes a big difference. They still don't have a table for you to use in your cell. I have three cardboard boxes stacked on top of each other, that I use to write on. It does the job.

Those are the main physical changes that have happened over the years since I wrote about it last. If and when they build the new Death Row, hopefully the cells will have a little more space and they will address the other things like tables. But I also hope they don't use it as an opportunity to chip away at even more of the little we have. I suppose we will find out, although it has been my experience that they steadily take things away and we usually have to go through the courts to get the things we do have.

They do need a new Death Row very badly, if they plan to continue with the death penalty in California. There was a tour through Death Row a few weeks ago, it had representatives from various media outlets, newspapers and TV both. The purpose of the tour was to show the public that the current Death Row is badly outdated and overburdened. I don't know what the media thought or what their stories had to say about it. It is obvious to anyone who comes in here that a new facility is needed for Death Row.

When I was first put on Death Row, there were between 250 and 350 people here. Since then, the population has grown to well over 600 people sentenced to death. The Death Row at San Quentin was originally built to house around 64 people. There is about 10 times that number of people here now. Evidently they want to make the new Death Row so it houses close to a thousand people. As a parting shot, I will mention again how expensive it is to have the death penalty. You can do the math and figure out for yourself how much would be saved if California did away with the death penalty.

I'm out of here for this one. Thanks for your time and feel free to comment or you can write me directly. My address is on this site.

Take care,
Dean