move to shutter
Two clocks, three telephones, and a light green death chamber will soon be a memory as California moves to complete the dismantling of its Death Row.
Attention has turned to transferring the remaining 465 people on Condemned Row to facilities other than San Quentin, since Gov. Gavin Newsom has announced that the historic prison will become a rehabilitation center.
“I feel great that Death Row will be no more, especially now that the world can see how racially motivated it is,” Condemned Row prisoner Darren Stanley wrote in a letter to SQNews. “To be taken and placed in a general population setting is a greater opportunity to provide as well as receive the energies of humanity.”
Stanley goes by the name “Knowledge Born God Allah” in connection to his culture. For him Death Row is a troubling place. “There is a foul energy here and some people have took this energy as life when in fact it’s death,” he said.
Bob R. Williams Jr. has a different take on Death Row. “I got here when I was 20 years old. This place is pretty much all I know because I have never been anywhere else. Death Row is where I grew up, where I became a man,” Williams wrote for the Prison Journalism Project in 2022.
For some crime victims, the closure of the Row is not welcome news. Someone on Death Row abducted and murdered Sandra Friend’s 8-year-old son.
“To hear this news is devastating,” Friend told NPR news.
Some incarcerated people are also apprehensive. “I have concerns with a serial killer merging with general population if that person has not changed,” said Rahan Asaan. “I do understand though it is an advantage for those who may be innocent of their crimes.”
William Harris lives in H-Unit. “I am not a fan of being around people who don’t care about my life. But part of me also says that some of these guys are different and deserve an opportunity to thrive.”
Patrick Demery, another incarcerated person, put it bluntly. “If somebody from Death Row comes to my cell talking about moving in with me, I am giving them the cell. For someone like me it is a threat to live with someone who has nothing to lose.”
One name for San Quentin is Bastille by the Bay. Beautiful scenery surrounds the walls. Ferries and kayaks pass within shouting distance daily. But the prison has a bloody history of killings of both guards and prisoners.
Four hundred and twenty-two executions have occurred at San Quentin, beginning with hangings in 1893, of which there were more than 200. In 1938, authorities installed the gas chamber. By 1967, executioners had gassed 194 prisoners to death, including four women.
Aaron Charles Mitchell, convicted of the murder of Sacramento police officer Arnold Gamble, was the last to die during that period. Mitchell allegedly shouted, “I am Jesus Christ!” as his executioners dragged him to the chamber on April 12, 1967.
Court challenges halted the use of the death penalty following Mitchell’s execution. Executions didn’t resume until the early morning hours of April 21, 1992. Robert Alton Harris faced the gas chamber for the slayings of two 16-year-old boys.
From that point on the mechanism of death became lethal drug cocktails, used only a few times in California. The most prominent of these executions was that of Stanley “Tookie” Williams.
Because the death penalty is rife with constitutional concerns over lethal injection, racism, mental illness and miscarriages of justice, executions have stalled.
In 2019, Newsom declared a moratorium on executions. In January 2023, he announced his intention to turn Death Row into a “healing center.” If he realizes that goal, the 671 people sentenced to death may never have their sentences carried out. But the death penalty will still exist in California and prosecutors can still pursue it.
One significant challenge to the death penalty is that many on the Row have mental health problems. California was first state to open a Death Row psychiatric ward, which was filled to capacity within a year.
In 2016, Kamala Harris, then the state’s attorney general, asked the state’s Supreme Court to remove Ronnie McPeters from Death Row and resentence him to life without parole due to his mental health condition.
Nathan Barankin, then chief deputy attorney general, said his office considers some on Death Row so “grievously incompetent” that they can never face execution, and that the state should declare them incompetent and remove them from the Row.
“There are individuals on Death Row old enough to be grandfathers, with mentalities of 12-year-old children, still believing in a child’s idea about life,” said Stanley.
The death penalty disproportionately impacts Black and Brown people. In October 2020 Newsom filed an Amicus brief arguing that racism historically infects the ultimate penalty.
California voters passed Proposition 66 requiring people with death sentences to work so they can pay restitution, with 70% of their pay going to victim’s families. They have to leave Death Row to do this.
During the COVID-19 pandemic CDCR implemented a two-year pilot program that transferred more than one hundred condemned prisoners from San Quentin and another 10 from the Central California Women’s Facility.
“At those institutions that may receive people from Death Row, I ask that you welcome them,” the Director of the Division of Adult Institutions, Connie Gipson, wrote in a memorandum. “This will be a big change for them, and I appreciate everybody’s patience and understanding as they settle into their new locations.”
The last execution in California was more than 17 years ago.