Index of all columns


December 2011

Column 52

The following is something I wrote for a newspaper in England called INSIDE TIME ( and it talks about some of the things I have written about in the past. However, there have been many changes here on Death Row since I first arrived, so a lot of what I originally talked about is no longer relevant. I hope it will still be interesting enough for you to read. Take care, Dean.

San Quentin Prison is one of the most infamous prisons in America. It is a medieval looking place that was built in the 1860s. It is located on the North Shore of the San Francisco Bay and sits in stark contrast next to its neighbor, Marin County, which is one of the wealthiest and most exclusive areas in the USA.

There used to be over 6000 prisoners housed here at San Quentin, but now the prison population is down to just about 4750 prisoners. This is the result of a federal court mandate that ordered the lowering of the population in California prisons. About one in seven of the prisoners here at San Quentin is now on death row. That would be around 720 condemned prisoners, of which I am one.

San Quentin has the only execution chamber in the State of California, so all state executions are carried out here. Even though all executions are carried out here, not all condemned prisoners are housed here. There are a number (I think about 10) of women prisoners with a death sentence. They are located at the women's prison at Chowchilla, California. They would be brought here to San Quentin when, and if, they are to be executed. There have been no women executed in California since Barbara Graham was executed, here at San Quentin, over 50 years ago.

I have been locked up for almost 3 decades and I arrived at San Quentin over 20 years ago. I have spent all of my life at SQ, here on death row, so I'm not able to describe what it is like on the Mainline part of the prison. The Mainline is totally separate from us on death row. We have no contact with the general population and they don't have any contact with The Row. Death Row is considered to be a Security Housing Unit, or SHU, program. It is basically just another way to say "The Hole”.

On The Row there are two groups of prisoners. Grade A and grade B. There are over 500 were classified as grade A. Most grade A are housed in East Block, but 68 are housed in North Segregation, which is the original Death Row, before the number of condemned prisoners outgrew the space in North Seg. The grade A prisoners are allowed the most privileges of 
Death Row.

The grade B prisoners are housed in a cellblock called Carson section or else in the cellblock called the Adjustment Center, or A/C for short. These prisoners are considered to be in “The Hole”. Even though all of the Death Pro program would be considered “The Hole” by Mainline prisoners, Death Row has its own "Hole” which is even more restrictive than the rest of Death Row.

Carson section holds the short-term grade B prisoners. Usually they are in The Hole for six months to a couple of years. The prisoners in the A/C are ones who will be grade B long-term. Many will never leave the A/C and some have been there for well over 20 years. These are prisoners who are active gang members or prisoners who have a history of violence against others on Death Row. Some have killed other prisoners while they have been here or they are just considered a security risk.

I have seen many changes here, here on The Row, since I first drove up. Most of the changes have been to take away the limited privileges we have had at the time. We are considered to be grade A prisoners and are supposed to have many of the privileges of prisoners on the Mainline, but compared to the prisoners on the Mainline, we have a very austere existence. Since Death Row is a SHU program, security is the first priority. We are allowed certain privileges, but it is still a very restrictive environment.

All prisoners on The Row have to be handcuffed and escorted by a guard whenever they are out of their cell or living area. The only exceptions are the 20 (or so) workers in East block. They are able to work in the cellblock, but must wear restraints and have a guard escort when they leave the cellblock.

The other exception is the prisoners in North Seg. They are allowed out of their cells for about five hours a day with no handcuffs. They are in a common area that is separate from the guards. North Seg is a part of Death Row where prisoners who do not have disciplinary problems are housed.

I have sketched a very basic outline of what it is like here on Death Row. I could write about the day to day life, but when you cut through all of the BS, it is just steel and concrete like any prison. What makes any prison what it is, is the people who are inside of it. Both the prisoners and the guards, who are around you, is what makes a prison what it is. If you have prisoners and guards who are jerks, then it will be a lot worse than it has to be. If the prisoners and guards are decent, then it makes it more tolerable. Regardless of whether you are on Death Row, or if you are in a minimum security facility, it is up to you on how hard or easy it is when you do your time. You can use your time in a negative way or in a positive way. As the old prison saying goes, "Do your time, don't let your time do you." Being a loser is easy; it takes hard work and character to be a winner. No, I am not paraphrasing Charlie Sheen.

All the best to you,
Dean Carter

P.O. box C-97919
San Quentin Prison
San Quentin, California 94974 USA