California begins the process of repurposing Death Row housing units
The nation’s largest Death Row is now in its final throes, as Gov. Gavin Newsom prepares to implement the remaining portion of a 2016 voter initiative that moves condemned prisoners to other maximum-security facilities and integrates them with the general prison population.
“We are starting the process of closing Death Row to repurpose and transform the current housing units into something innovative and anchored in rehabilitation,” said Vicky Waters, a spokesperson for the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation.
Six years ago, voters approved a ballot measure to speed up executions in California and to transfer condemned to other prisons where they could be put to work until such time as their death sentence could be carried out.
In 2019, Gov. Newsom announced a moratorium on executions and shuttered San Quentin’s death chamber. The following year, corrections officials began a two-year voluntary transfer pilot program, moving 116 condemned prisoners to seven other high-security prisons surrounded by lethal electrified fences.
For the first time in California history, eligible death-sentenced individuals can be housed in general population areas where they have more access to job opportunities and rehabilitative programming, comparable to those serving life-without-parole sentences.
The message seems to be that, as long as they live, condemned inmates should be put to work and make restitution to the families of their victims. Indeed, the main requirement for transferees is to work a prison job assignment and have 70-percent of their wages garnished for victim restitution.
By all accounts, the program has proven successful. By the end of 2021, nearly $50,000 had been collected for victims from condemned prisoners’ wages.
Critics’ fears that the transferred prisoners would be targeted have not so far panned out.
“There have been no safety concerns, and no major disciplinary issues have occurred,” said Vicky Waters, CDCR spokesperson.
Corrections officials have been working on submitting proposals for new regulations that will make the program mandatory, rather than voluntary, and “allow for the repurposing of all Death Row housing units,” Waters said.
Gov. Newsom’s proposed budget for the fiscal year starting July 1 seeks $1.5 million to find new uses for the vacant condemned housing. In contrast, the state will save an estimated $150 million annually by converting Death Row housing for therapeutic or rehabilitative purposes.
Not everyone, however, supports the recent changes.
“They’re moving condemned murderers into facilities that are going to make their lives better and offer them more amenities, while the victims still mourn the death of their family member,” said Michael Rushford, president of the Criminal Justice Legal Foundation, which backed the 2016 initiative.
“Newsom is pouring more salt on the wounds of victims,” said Nina Salarno, president of Crime Victims United of California. “He’s usurping the law.”
But it was voters who supported the 2016 initiative, not the governor, who made this decision.
“When [voters] affirmed the death penalty, they also affirmed a responsibility… to actually move that population on Death Row out and get them working,” Newsom said in a Marin Independent Journal article in February.
Yet the move to take people off of Death Row has been touted as a “continuation of the governor’s policy of gradually dismantling California’s death penalty,” said Robert Dunham, executive director of the Death Penalty Information Center in Washington, DC.
John Cornell is a librarian who supervises the incarcerated library workers who fill out book orders for prisoners on Death Row. Once a week, book requests are filled and delivered to Death Row to be distributed by correctional officers.
Cornell commented on Death Row’s impending closure. “There is a whole range of personalities that end up on Death Row,” he said. “They would be more properly placed in custody that fits their psychological personalities.”
Cornell said he believes that some of the men on Death Row would actually make great clerks. He felt that their separation from the general prison population didn’t make much sense.
Since August of last year, 55-year-old Derrick Gibson has worked in San Quentin’s library, filling the book requests that filter in from Death Row. After his own 32 years’ incarceration, Gibson is in a unique position to glean some insights into the personalities Cornell talked about.
“They [Death Row prisoners] read the same things as what’s read on the mainline,” Gibson said. “Like urban, fantasy, and romance. They also like graphic novels, and some like history, business and autobiographies of political figures.
An (abbreviated) history of California executions
The state of California took over executions from the individual counties in 1891 and began carrying out death sentences at Folsom State Prison, east of Sacramento. San Quentin joined in the business of capital punishment two years later.
A total of 215 “judicial hangings” were carried out on San Quentin’s gallows (left) over the next 45 years.
San Quentin became the sole designated prison for executions in 1938 when the state unveiled its new two-seater gas chamber (top right), nicknamed “The Smokehouse” by those waiting to die. For their final request, the first pair of condemned men to die side-by-side in the jade-green chamber asked for — and got — a shot of whiskey and a cigar ten minutes before their sentence was carried out.
California carried out 10 executions by lethal injection, the most recent in 2006. That same year, the state paid $853,000 for its new lethal injection chamber (bottom right), which was intended to conform with modern court rulings on cruel and unusual punishment and to provide a more “humane” means of execution.
The new lethal injection chamber has never been used and was decommissioned in 2019 when Gov. Gavin Newsom declared a moratorium on executions in the state.