Death Mansion 

What’s really behind Gray Davis’ push for a 1,000-bed death row?

Thursday, Feb 6 2003

THERE IS NO MONEY. NOTHING FOR cancer research or artificial limbs. Far less than before for community colleges, homeless shelters, housing and public transportation. That’s what Governor Gray Davis is telling Californians as the state enters its worst fiscal crisis in decades.

In most states across the nation, the news is just as bad, though governors are finding ways to fund programs in direst need. In New York, there will be an extra $80 million for mental-health care. In Mississippi, an added $236 million for schools.

Here in California, Davis has his pet program too. He’s asking for a boost in the operating budget of the California Department of Corrections, and he’s decided that what we need more than anything else is a new prison — a $220 million state-of-the-art death row.

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To the casual observer, it might seem an odd choice. Has lock-’em-up Davis suddenly developed a deep empathy for the state’s 618 condemned men and women, many of whom have been living in the deteriorating San Quentin prison for a decade or more with poor health care, substandard mental-health treatment and overcrowded exercise yards?

Or perhaps kill-’em-all Davis has discovered an unlikely kinship with former Illinois Governor George Ryan and decided to acknowledge the futility of the death penalty. After all, it is far more likely that an inmate on California’s death row will die of old age or illness than by execution — since the death penalty was reinstated in 1978, California has executed 10 inmates. More than twice that many have died of sickness or suicide. Another 65 condemned inmates have had their sentences overturned or have been released.

So Davis’ plan to build a new death row that would house nearly 1,000 inmates could be his way of conceding that what we are really running here is a very expensive life without parole that will only continue to grow.

The more likely explanation is that Davis is trying to toughen up his image (a Democrat can never be tough enough) while helping out his number-one fan, the prison guards’ union. The union gave $3 million to Davis’ last campaign and runs a vigorous lobbying effort in Sacramento — in December it helped fund a Hawaiian junket for several top lawmakers.

For years the guards have pushed legislators to shut down San Quentin entirely. The prison, built in 1852 on a bluff overlooking the San Francisco Bay, is a relic from another time. Inmates who built the prison — originally designed to hold 68 — hauled bricks during the day and slept on a ship at night. Saltwater was pumped through the pipes until the 1970s. Even the sign for the entryway to condemned row is done up in quaint, Shakespearean script.

In addition to death row, San Quentin now houses 2,200 minimum-security prisoners. Another 3,300 inmates are warehoused there temporarily as they pass through the prison’s so-called reception center en route to other prisons in the northern half of the state.

To the guards and to the state’s prison bureaucracy, San Quentin is an untenable labyrinth of crooked hallways and obscured views, of leaking roofs, cracking walkways and rusting, rotting everything. The environs are a bit too pleasant, the juxtaposition of hard time with a bay view jarring. San Quentin is the antithesis of the mechanized concrete-and-steel institutions that have come to epitomize modern prisons. “I’ve been an advocate of closing it for a very long time,” said Robert Presley, a former legislator and, as secretary of the state’s Youth and Adult Correctional Agency, Davis’ top prison appointee. “It costs a lot of money to keep it running, and it sits in a very high-rent district.”

Beyond all that, what the guards fear most, they say, is a breakout — some unprecedented escape with dozens of desperadoes pouring out of the prison and into the streets of San Rafael, Berkeley and San Francisco. Twice in recent years condemned inmates and other prisoners have managed to wrest free of confinement, only to be quickly caught while still on prison grounds. “We’ve been very fortunate that we haven’t had an escape,” said Lance Corcoran, vice president of the California Correctional Peace Officers Association.

The number-one choice of both guards and prison officials would have been to move death row entirely to somewhere remote and more appropriately penal. But the criminal-defense bar, many of whom live and work in and around the Bay Area, objected. They found a strong advocate in state Senate Pro Tem John Burton, a death-penalty opponent who last year soundbited on the importance of having those we intend to kill living in our midst, as a moral reminder and to provide easier access to both attorneys and kin. There is also the seemingly impossible task of finding the row another home — legislation to permit a handful of the most violent death-row inmates to be moved to a more secure facility at Folsom passed in 2001 amid a barrage of community opposition.

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