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Death Mansion

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.

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.

The new digs, which would rise on the site of a warehouse and an open field referred to as “The Farm,” would mirror the design of existing maximum-security state prisons in Sacramento, Wasco and Lancaster, according to Stephen Green, assistant secretary of the Youth and Adult Correctional Agency, the parent organization to the California Department of Corrections. It would consist of 938 cells built in semicircles around central viewing stations. There would also be a clinic designed primarily for use by death-row inmates.

The guards and the prison bureaucracy have done a good job of selling the new prison plan, making it sound inevitable. Proportionately, they say, San Quentin costs more to maintain than any of the other 32 state prisons. They call it the “money pit.” And they told the Los Angeles Times in a January 22 story that the new prison funding is “bond money that cannot be used for other projects.”

The truth is, this money is entirely discretionary. It is not part of an already-approved bond but a proposed one, a hybrid called a “lease revenue” bond that does not require voter approval, although ultimately the taxpayers do foot the bill. The Legislature will consider this proposal in the coming months as part of the governor’s budget plan.

Even as law-and-order types expound on the necessity of the plan, Burton, the highest-profile California politician who opposes the death penalty, has remained strangely silent. He did not return calls for comment, and his staff declined to speak on the record.

That’s because he’s trying to have it both ways, according to Stephen Kinsey, a supervisor from Marin County who has long advocated razing San Quentin and installing a regional ferry hub in its place. Kinsey, who calls the expansion plan “a terrible idea,” said Burton has privately promised legislators in the area that he will not push the prison plan this year. That pledge came partly in response to a strongly worded letter from Democratic Assemblyman Joe Nation of Marin vowing to oppose any budget proposal that included funds for San Quentin construction.

Whatever Burton’s intent, his silence signals tacit support for the construction of a new death row. Perhaps he believes that it will never actually be built. A similar proposal put forward in the mid-’90s was scuttled in the face of strong community opposition. And it’s not hard to imagine some environmentally savvy Burton constituents of the prison-averse, Marin-activist type discovering a rare species of bird or reptile that must live undisturbed on the planned construction site.

Not all capital-defense attorneys who call the Bay Area home want the new prison built. A few oppose it on the theory that “If we build it, they will come.” Most, though, agree with Steve Fama of the Prison Law Office and welcome any plan to improve the living conditions of those now on the row. They are relieved that San Quentin will remain close at hand — spending an entire day trekking to Pelican Bay or Folsom to visit a client is no one’s idea of time well spent. It is hard enough as it is to persuade high-quality attorneys to represent condemned inmates — more than 100 are now without representation. Imagine the difficulty if the row were moved to a less desirable locale.

Elisabeth Semel, who runs a death-row clinic at UC Berkeley’s Boalt School of Law, is ambivalent. “As a taxpayer I look around, and I see what is happening to our educational system, to our vital social services, and I am deeply troubled by this choice,” Semel said. “Of all the things that could be attended to, I don’t think this is at the top of the list.” But she has witnessed the conditions on death row firsthand and calls them “horrific.”

In this way, clever Davis has appeased his financial backers while gingerly placing the contingent most likely to oppose more prison spending over the proverbial barrel.

Indeed, Burton is leading the effort to cut the state’s massive $5.2 billion prison budget by the early release of nonviolent or elderly convicts, as well as those nearing the end of their sentences. He estimates those cuts could save close to $150 million.

But the real answer goes much further. It would save the taxpayers millions and make Davis a fiscal hero: Shut down the row and send the inmates to other top-security prisons to finish off the life terms they have already started. One could even make the argument that Davis would have the will of the public behind him. Although the majority of Californians still support the death penalty, that majority has been in steady decline. And in the most recent Field Poll, 73 percent of the state’s residents supported a moratorium.

As a result of the legislation passed two years ago, the state is moving a few death-row prisoners to New Folsom Prison, according to Robert Presley. “They are the worst of the worst of the worst,” Presley said. “But we still have to figure out what to do with the rest of them.”

Sara Catania is a Crime and Communities Media Fellow with the Open Society Institute, a New York–based nonprofit dedicated to reforming the criminal-justice system. To read more about the death penalty, go to her L.A. Weekly archive.