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Column 54

    Contact with people from the “outside world” for most prisoners here on San Quentin’s Death Row is something that doesn’t happen often, if at all. If I had to guess, which I do, I would say out of the close to 800 prisoners on the Row in California, less than 20% have family of friends who come to visit them. I suspect that most people on the Row do not have any contact with anybody outside of these prison walls, unless they are Attorney’s or people connected to the legal system in some manner. I know one prisoner who hasn’t even seen his lawyers in over a decade, but that is his choice.
    San Quentin Prison does not allow “outsiders” into the Death Row parts of the prison. For clarification there are two parts to San Quentin. The largest is the mainline which is everything not part of Death Row. Those on the main line are able to walk around the prison without restraints (handcuffs and chains) and are not escorted by a prison guard when they leave their cells like those on Death Row are. They have relative freedom within the confines of the prison.
    Contrast that with Death Row part of San Quentin. Death Row is classified as a Security Housing Unit program, or SHU program (pronounced shoe) for short. The SHU program is basically a prison inside the prison. In prisons, outside California, a SHU program might be known as solitary confinement. Except for a handful of condemned prisoners who are allowed to have jobs, no prisoner leaves their cell, or in the case of North Seg, their living area, unless they are in restraints and have a guard escorting them. Condemned prisoners have no contact and are isolated from the prison mainline.
    I can remember only one time over the years when the prison has allowed anyone, who is not part of the prison / legal system access to Death Row. The one exception was a media person who was working on a book.  I don’t know why she was allowed access to Death Row when other media were not. I remember hearing how after her Death Row tour she was trying to generate publicity for her book by exploiting one of the better known prisoners here on the Row. Evidently she had inadvertently caught this prisoner in one of her photos. As a result that prisoner ended up being the focus of her visit to the Row and not what ever her book was about.
    Considering this history of isolation, you can imagine my surprise when I heard the media was going to be touring the Row and would be allowed unrestricted access to prisoners, within the security restrictions allowed in a Security Housing Unit. The prisoners were informed we could speak with any of the media, but had to sign a consent form beforehand.
    The media tour took place a couple of days before the end of 2015. Since I had no interest in speaking with anyone from the media, I went to the exercise yard in hopes of avoiding them. Near the end of the exercise period, feeling  bit smug with my decision to avoid the media by going to the yard, suddenly a large group of people entered the area surrounding our yard. It felt like being in a fish bowl and surrounded by people. The media people and the prisoners on the yard were eyeing each other curiously as their escort form the prison administration was telling them where they were and what they were seeing.
    Our exercise yard is enclosed by a thick wire mesh fence. There is an armed guard on an elevated station at one end of the yard. About 5 feet outside the mesh fence there is a metal wall surrounding the yard. Basically the fenced in yard has this barrier on 3 sides and a guard station on the 4th side. As a result from the inside of the yard all your can see is metal and concrete.
    The group of media people were standing between the fence and the metal barrier on the outside of the yard and after the prison official finished his spiel, some of the media started asking questions to those of us on the yard. Although I wasn’t interested in being interviewed about the Death penalty or Death Row, I walked over to the fence and struck up a conversation with a couple of newspaper reporters. I was mainly interested in finding out who they were with. I wouldn’t sign any consent form for them to interview me, but it was interesting to be able to chat with people from outside of this isolated world we live and maybe hear an outsiders view of Death Row.
    As I was chatting with them, I could see a few of the media were here just to shoot stock photos for who ever they worked for. A couple of the reporters drifted over to listen to what I was talking about with the two reporters and I half expected them to ask the standard lazy reporter question of, “you are here on Death Row waiting to die, how does that make you feel?” Fortunately that didn’t happen.
    As I was talking with these reporters I tried to get some sort of idea what they might be thinking and feeling. A couple of the newspaper people seemed to be trying to take it all in and maybe process everything later. I was skeptical they would get any more that a superficial view of the Row and the people who are on it. After all, I have been here for decades and I have trouble explaining what it is. It is the prisoners who exist here and those who work on the Row who are what the place is all about.  Each person has their own perspective and opinion of what it is like and what it about. As the tour was leaving I couldn’t help but be curious about what these people would have to say about their day here on the row.
    As the tour ended and the group left, we couldn’t see the group once they left our yard area, but we could hear the drone of their voices on the other side of the metal barrier that surrounds our yard and the thought occurred to me that I would have been willing to bet at least one of these reporters would mention what a lovely view we on Death Row have of the San Francisco Bay.
    A few weeks later, one of the guys showed me an article written by a reporter who had been on the media tour and sure enough, one of the salient points in the story was how we on Death Row have million dollar view. I was disappointeded this would be what someone would take away from everything they saw and experienced during this tour. Granted, some parts of the reporters’ story showed perception and depth, but the million dollar view quip annoyed me, especially since it was not accurate. It seemed like it was just a cheap ploy to get an emotional response form the reader. I guess the million dollar view all depends on where you are standing. From where I am standing, all I can see is a metal barrier. From where the reporter was standing, he had a million dollar view.

Dean Carter

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