Entire concert was videotaped for Death Row viewing
Prisoners and outside guest Tony Saunders played a concert for the 700-plus men housed on the world’s largest Death Row inside San Quentin State Prison.
More than 30 prisoners from the general population did musical performances in the prison’s Catholic Chapel, but due to the security level of those on Death Row they were not allowed to attend. Instead, the entire concert was videotaped by the men who work in the prison’s media center.
“Keep your head up and believe in better days,” said Allison Watson. He spent 31 years on Death Row before his sentence was overturned. He’s now serving his sentence in the prison’s general population.
The diverse show opened with a rap performance by Rasheed Zinnamon, who was well received by the unusually high attendance of more than 100 prisoners and a few volunteers during the broadcast of a Sunday night football game.
“We are Banda Esperanza, and we send our regards to our brothers and sisters on Death Row,” the band leader said.
The all-Hispanic band was joined by the audience with claps as the men sang, played three guitars, bass and drums. A loud roar, applause and whistling from the crowd followed their performance.
“I’m grateful to the administration for letting us have the music,” one of the band members said before they performed. They were Jose Diaz, Martin Y. Vincente Gomez, Jose Vieyra, Senor Figueroa, Guadalupe Aranda and Adriel Ramirez.
“Tonight is all inclusive as you can tell,” said Lisa Starbird of the organization Bread & Roses, which sponsored the event. Starbird looked for men willing to say on the microphone what they were grateful for. “If you’re not involved in some kind of program (at San Quentin), there’s something out there for you.”
“Christ and Me Arrived” was performed by members of the Catholic Chapel Choir that included the music, lyrics and harmony of Gino Sevacos, Dwight Krizman, Rick Evans, Daniel Lee, John Krueger, Kelvin Ross, Bill Harwood and Alan Brown.
“I’m grateful to Bread & Roses for bringing us the gift of music,” a prisoner in the audience said. “One love!” he shouted out to the men on Death Row.
“We all support you and send our love,” a prisoner named Dennis said to the men on Death Row.
“I’m grateful for the blood and resurrection of Jesus Christ,” said another prisoner.
The jazz band Free Fall, consisting of Greg “D” Dixon (guitar), Lee “Jazz” Jaspar (bass),
Mark Kinney (piano) and Dwight Krizman (drums) performaned a convincing selection that sealed its dominance as the go-to jazz ensemble.
Jaspar played the bass effortlessly as Dixon picked notes on the guitar and scatted note-for-note, in key with the music. As the music pushed on, each musician locked in and improvised with each other. They received a standing ovation.
A small technical problem with the audio stopped the show for about a minute, so Starbird improvised by passing the microphone around to give others an opportunity to speak about gratitude. The comments kept pouring out as the men encouraged the men on Death Row to stay positive.
“There’s always hope,” a prisoner in the audience said. “I thank God for the mercy He has shown me. We can all make better choices and be better people.”
Starbird thanked the SQ media team for coming out to cover the event because it was a Sunday night, which typically receives little media coverage.
The band Quentin Blue performed a number of songs including an original tune called “Chamba’s Mountain.” It had a country vibe as singer Richie Morris and the rest of the men sang backup and played three guitars, piano, bass, mandolin and percussion instruments.
The ensemble was made up of Morris, Dwight Krizman, Joe Thureson, Bill Harwood, Andrew “Boots” Hardy, Ray Simpson and Chris Thomas.
“That was one of the funest gigs I ever played,” said Simpson, who played guitar.
Later, Starbird introduced Tony Saunders. She said he’s “pretty amazing” for all the things he does like coming in to the prison to help. She also expressed gratitude to Father George Williams for allowing them to use the chapel for the event.
Saunders said he was happy to be able to play for the men on Death Row. “Know that you’re thought of,” he reminded them. “Don’t think that nobody notices.”
Using prerecorded music tracks on the first song, played over the chapel PA system, Saunders played the bass lines on his custom-made five-string bass. The melody of the song could easily be identified by his phrasing on the bass. He made the instrument speak to the audience. Then he used his voice to scat with every note as he thumped and plucked the instrument to the delight of the crowd.
“Don’t try this in your cells alone,” Saunders said with a big smile.
Then he did a solo and didn’t spare any tricks as he made the bass growl. His fingers crisscrossed every octave of the bass fret board. Then he played “Purple Haze” by Jimi Hendrix as the audience clapped before he returned to his R&B, jazz improvised solo. The crowd applauded and shouted.
An appropriate song selected and performed for the men on Death Row was Saunder’s song “Always Thinking About You” from his 2016 album Uptown Jazz, produced by Saunders and Larry Batiste on the label SFRecords.
The show didn’t end there. Jaspar, Krizman and Saunders performed an improvised piece that sounded like they’ve been playing together for years. Krizman led with a drum rhythm as Saunders and Jaspar followed on bass and piano, respectively. Saunders’ facial expressions let everyone know he was into the music.
“Two years ago, he (Jaspar) taught me some stuff,” said Saunders of the first time they played together. He said that performance lasted about 40 minutes because they had so much fun.
After Saunders and friends, The Prodigal Sons took the stage by storm with a memorable gospel sounding piece. They were Michael Kirkpatrick, Greg Thompson, Calvin “Sincere” Carter, Michael Bootae and Derry “Brother-Dee” Brown. The lyrics and harmony were inspiring as the men sang: “Well, I went to the church last night, and my heart felt alright, ‘cause Jesus got a hold on me.”
The audience clapped and sang along as they performed this gospel/spiritual piece. No matter what one’s faith, this song was very moving – reminiscent of civil rights freedom songs and marches for civil rights — think Eyes on The Prize. Their harmony was magic, and the crowd stood up and applauded to let them know it.
After the show, volunteer Molly Kittle said, “I was struck by the love in the room. The quality of how every man – performers and audience – chose to use their voice to lift all of us higher.”
“I love rap, ‘80s music, and gospel,” said volunteer and guest Katie Burke. “The concert started with rap and ended with ‘80s and gospel, so I was happy. Thanks to all the musicians and to the camera people who covered the event.”
Recording the “Concert for Death Row” was the SQTV video crew of Brian Asey, Eric “Phil” Phillips, Jerry Welsh, Jaspar (show producer), Joshua Burton, and supervisor Skyler Brown.
The full concert will appear on San Quentin’s institutional television channel in the coming weeks.
Watson Allison, who spent more than 30 years on San Quentin’s Death Row, was one of many in awe of sunset ser- vices for Good Friday — the day Jesus Christ was crucified.
Allison stood inside the Protestant Chapel as light filtered through its blue-tinted windows, dusk approached and men-in-blue mingled. Listening to Raul Higgins slapped the congas, Albert Flagg’s fingers danced on the piano while Greg Dixon rang out his piping organ. Dixon switched to a Fender guitar, adding a new dynamic to the drumming of Sincere Carter over Leonard “Funky Len” Walker’s bass guitar.
Edward Dewayne Brooks stood stage left, clapping and rocking in conversation with fellow ushers, choir members and the Worship Team.
As he listened, Allison said that he felt like he’s on the right path.
“I have a lot of support from people checking-in with me,” he said. “People come over to me just to see how I’m doing. That’s enriching to the soul.”
Nine long, fresh palm branches sat on the chapel stage. They shared the stage with the cross at the center. The palms stretched, nearly touching the chapel ceiling. A lone branch lay sideways on the stage’s steps.
Chaplin Mardi Ralph Jackson stood at the rear of the chapel as 34-year-old Carrington Russelle took the stage to share his addition to the sermon.
“She spends more time with us than she does with her family,” Russelle said about Chaplin Jackson. He encouraged the men-in-blue to take advantage of Jesus Christ’s sacrifice.
“We made some poor choices to get into this blue attire,” Russelle said. “Now you can make the best decision of your life by accepting Jesus.”
He emphasized that Jesus Christ was not murdered–he sacrificed his life to save us.
Vadim Zakharchenko, 32, gave a tearful sermon that brought attending men-in-blue to their feet. Zakharchenko said that, in the past, he came to church only semi-committed to Jesus Christ. He became tired of living that way, and after a conversation with his mother, he became fully committed to Jesus Christ.
George E. Moss, 49, shared his experience in administrative segregation in isolation after catching the flu. The experience restored his faith, and helped him understand God’s wisdom.
Armando R. Gonzalez’s sermon grappled with where true power comes from and why Jesus Christ sacrificed himself.
The popularity for and sentencing for the death penalty is declining in America, a research paper reports.
“The recent history of capital punishment in the U.S. has been marked by declining popularity and usage … Within the past 15 years, eight states have abandoned the death penalty through legislative repeal or judicial invalidation,” according to theconversation.com website.
“Capital punishment has been and continues to be controversial. … More than 2,700 men and women are under death sentence,” the website reported.
California has the nation’s largest Death Row: 737 men at San Quentin and more than 20 women at Chow- chilla.
“The number of new death sentences imposed annually nationwide has plummeted from more than 300 in the mid-1990s to a fraction of that – just 42 in 2018,” according to the National Death Penalty Archives in- formation.
There was a modern-day high number of 98 executions in 1999. Last year 25 people were executed in the United States.
Public approval for the killings is also declining. A 1995 Gallup Poll registered 80 percent public support for capital punishment. A similar poll in 2018 reflected only 56 percent support.
Texas leads the nation with more than five times as many executions as the next leading state, according to researchers.
Execution history includes the case of 14-year- old George Junius Stinney Jr., put to death in 1944 by South Carolina. Seventy years later his sentence was vacated when a judge ruled he did not get a fair trial.
The Stinney story and many others can be found at the National Death Penalty Archive. These archives house the court records, newspaper and magazine articles, bulletins, photographs and index cards for each of nearly 16,000 executions. These records have been assembled by M. Watt Espy Jr. over the past three decades for the project.
Some prosecutors may be using subtle tactics to dismiss Black jurors, despite laws against such racial bias in jury selection, according to the San Francisco Chronicle.
You could call it the “O.J. Strategy.” Rather than addressing race overtly, these prosecutors ask jurors whether they agreed with the controversial 1995 acquittal of O.J. Simpson. Simpson, a Black football star, was charged with the murders of his ex-wife and her friend, who were both White.
If jurors agreed with the verdict, they are dismissed, and prosecutors cite non-racial reasons. Others are added to the jury if their answers satisfy the prosecutors, according to the article.
The Simpson case isn’t the only tactic prosecutors have used to discriminate, say defense lawyers. Federal and state courts in California said jurors were California removed because they lived in predominantly-Black Los Angeles communities, according to the article.
Attorneys for two Black men on California’s Death Row said prosecutors used the O.J. Simpson question to select juries in the 1990s. The victims in both cases were White.
California’s high court has upheld similar convictions in other cases.
In one of the cases, Johnny Duane Miles was convicted of rape and murder by a jury with no Black members.
Two Black prospective jurors were removed from that trial after answering that they agreed with the Simpson verdict. But prosecutors say their removal was due to their skepticism of presented evidence, the Chronicle reported. Miles was sentenced to death in 1999.
Miles’ lawyer Cliff Gardner contested the prosecutors’ explanations, describing them as “pretexts for discrimination.” He added that the jurors who were dismissed came from law-enforcement-friendly backgrounds: The first was a Marine Corps veteran and married to a correctional officer. The other was the son of a federal drug agent.
California Attorney General Xavier Becerra’s office has argued that while the O.J. Simpson case was still national news, it was fair game for pre-trial questioning, according to court filings.
“The Simpson case was not about race,” Deputy Attorney General Seth Friedman said in the filings, which are a response to NAACP arguments on Miles’ behalf.
Instead, he argued that the trial is a stand-in for issues relevant to future cases such as “the reputation and trustworthiness of police officers,” the Chronicle reported.
“It had no discernible facial features. But I knew it was an angel,” Echols said, “and I got why angels in the Bible say ‘be not afraid’ when they show up, because this thing was terrifying.”
Echols and two friends were convicted of killing three 8-year-old boys in the early 1990s, according to the article. With no physical evidence to link the “West Memphis Three” to the murders, prosecutors instead relied on pentagram doodles and the teenagers’ belief in Wicca to convince a jury that they committed the murders as ritual sacrifices.
Echols and his codefendants were released in 2011 after HBO’s program “Paradise Lost: The Child Murders at Robin Hood Hills” created a movement to free them and new DNA evidence introduced another suspect.
“I did magick to lessen the power of politicians who were interested in carrying out my murder,” Echols wrote. “I performed magick to draw freedom toward me.”
Echols is now a spiritual teacher and author, helping others learn magick. His classes have attracted a small but devoted following, according to The Guardian.
“I look to Damien because like thousands of others, I was inspired by his resilience,” said one of his followers, Sarah, a school administrator from D.C. “He taught me that anyone can be freed from their own personal prison cell.”
Some of California’s most segregated prisoners are finding self-forgiveness and introspection through The Houses of Healing Self-study Program.
Death Row prisoners and those housed in segrated housing units (SHU) facilities are offered a 14-week correspondence course. San Quentin, Pelican Bay and Corcoran state prisons are among the facilities where the program is available.
“Through group sessions and independent work, prisoners learned how to deal constructively with conflict and hostility,” said Robin Casarjian, executive director of Lionheart Foundation and founder of the program.
“They learned ways to break lifelong patterns of dysfunction in order to find greater emotional balance, a sense of self-esteem, and the power to choose positive behavior,” she added.
More than 450 men have voluntarily registered for the course since 2017, she noted. As a part of the course, the segregated participants read the Houses of Healing: A prison- er’s Guide to Inner Power and Freedom by Casarjian herself.
The participants have to dedicate at least 30 minutes a day to do “self-work.” The work includes reading, writing and stress reduction exercises like meditation and relaxation. “Some women and men aren’t actively looking for emotional and spiritual healing, but when the guidance to do the work actually becomes available to them, they choose it,” wrote Casarjian in her book. “We can’t choose what we don’t yet know exists,” she added.
The book has “Pause and Reflect” lessons, where the participants are asked to think about their childhood, a time they felt guilt about a situation and what motivated that behavior.
There are exercises such as “A letter of Forgiving to Yourself” and “A Look into Your Future.” They receive new assignments once a week for the 14 weeks.
“The idea of prisoners for- giving themselves is as unacceptable to many as the actual commission of a crime,” Casarjian said. “Many people believe guilt and the threat of additional punishment are the driving forces that will stop future violence and criminal behavior.
“But history has shown us, this threat doesn’t work.” She noted that no matter how much shame and guilt a prisoner feels, recidivism rates are still high. It can also create low self-esteem in the prisoners and that can fuel violence.
She sees self-forgiveness as a deterrent to crime.
“Self-forgiving, like all healing, is a process—not a one-time event. It is not a superficial act of saying, ‘Yeah, I did such and such, now I’ll forgive myself.’ In many cases, true self-forgiving takes time, courage, and a depth of honest looking that not everyone is ready or willing to do,” Casarjian said.
The course requires the participant to have a fifth-grade reading level and a commitment to doing the internal work. At the end of the course, selected assignments are submitted and reviewed by Lionheart staff or volunteers. Then, a certificate of participation is issued and signed by Casarjian.
This Houses of Healing program is strictly for prisoners in segregated housing units. It’s in accordance with a new directive by the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation, meant to create and deliver rehabilitative programing to all prisoners.
The program is also available in Spanish and at other prisons across the nation.
To register for the program if you are in a segregated housing unit contact: The Lionheart Foundation HOH SS
P.O. Box 4145
Dedham, MA 02027
Lawmakers say this alternative method is a more humane way to carry out capital punishment. It works by directing the inmate to breathe inert gas as opposed to oxygen. Examples of such gases include helium, methane and nitrogen.
The Associated Press reported that inhaling nitrogen gas is “like dying on a plane that depressurizes in flight, swiftly killing all aboard.”
Perhaps that’s why 51 of Alabama’s 180 death row inmates have signed statements indicating their preference for that gas as opposed to a lethal injection or the electric chair.
An example of such torture took place in 2016, when Ronald Smith Jr.’s attorney witnessed him coughing and heaving for more than 10 minutes in the gas chamber. Smith’s movement showed he was not anesthetized at any point during the agonizingly long procedure.
Others, however, believe the uncertainty behind such a new procedure may cause more harm.
State Senator Cam Ward said he believes some inmates agreed to nitrogen gas because of the foreseeable, lengthy legal challenges. He added that it could possibly be a way for prisoners to avoid the death penalty.
Ward also attributes the fact that inmates are opting for this alternative method of execution to fear. According to the Dorland’s Illustrated Medical Dictionary, lethal injections involve drugs that, if given incorrectly, can result in suffering “I think they’ve seen stories of where the three-drug cocktail lethal injection has failed and there’s that fear of it being a botched process as opposed to nitrogen,” Ward said.
In Alabama, the most recent state to consider this alternative method, litigation over the state’s lethal injection method ended because inmates
chose the nitrogen gas process.
The lawsuit that challenged lethal injections was dismissed.
California leads the nation with 23 women on Death Row, but the condemned women are largely invisible and forgotten behind bars, and their stories rarely see the light of day.
California has more than three times the number of condemned women in Texas (six on condemn) and in Alabama (five on condemn), according a Death Penalty Information Center (DPIC) report.
The women on California’s Death Row are housed in Central California Women’s Facility (CCWF) in Chowchilla. Until 1933, they were housed in San Quentin in the Women’s Ward. They were relocated to California Institution for Women at Tehachapi, which opened that same year.
Fox worked with attorneys on death row cases and had the opportunity to visit the women.
According to a sergeant at CCWF, women on condemned row have access to hobby crafts, religious programs and to Adult Basic Education and the Voluntary Education Program (VEP). They can also take college courses via the mail.
Most women on Death Row are there because they killed a husband or hired someone to do it, or because they killed their children, Fox noted.
Catherine Thompson, whom Fox said she worked with, has been on Death Row since 1993.
She’s African American; she has a son who is pretty successful; she’s a very articulate woman. She is college educated,” Fox said.
Thompson was convicted as the mastermind of her husband’s murder. But there was no direct evidence presented by prosecutors that proved her involvement, according to “Women on Death Row in California,” an article in ThoughtCo.com. But the jury found her guilty, and she was sentenced to death.
All her accomplices received lesser sentences, including the shooter, who was found guilty and received a life sentence.
“There’s a great sadness in your heart knowing you’re going to die and going to leave the people you love,” Maureen McDermott, the first woman in California to be sentenced to the death penalty since capital punishment was reinstated in 1978, told the Los Angeles Times back in 1992. “But I’m not afraid to die. If they want to murder me, let them murder me. My life is ruined anyway.”
The last woman executed in California was Elizabeth Ann “Ma” Duncan, 58, on Aug. 8, 1962. She was convicted of hiring two people to murder her pregnant daughter-in-law. There have only been four women executed in California since 1893.
The Chowchilla prison, which was opened in 1990, converted a housing unit to hold 10 women on a top floor, and the bottom floor became a common area and an exercise area.
Since the increase in the number of women on California’s Death Row, the bottom floor now houses more women, and they have their own exercise yard.
“What kind of life is this?
As of 2018, there were 55 women on death row in America. There have been 16 women executed since 1976 — two by electrocution, the rest by lethal injection, the DPIC report said.
Emma LeDoux holds the distinction of being the first woman ever sentenced to death in California in 1906. In 1907 she complained about her notoriety:
“It seems that it is not enough for people to crowd and block the streets to stare at me, as if I were some sort of a Fourth of July horrible. Now they must start these rumors,” LeDoux said. “In justice to myself, I’m glad you came.” But she avoided the hangman when she was granted a retrial after appealing her case. She was eventually released to parole in 1920 but wound up back in prison in 1931, where she died in 1941.
San Quentin State Prison – Death Row
Dear Mr. Montes,
Thank you for expressing interest in our program. Until your letter, we never knew if there were youth offenders in Death Row interested in taking our program. We will do our best to work with you in conjunction with our community partnership manager to see if we could help set up a Kid CAT curriculum program for Death Row inmates. By the way, Kid CAT is open to and advocates for all youths regardless of sentence or incarceration, not just for lifers. Stay encouraged.