First in a series of interviews with San Quentin’s Condemned Row prisoners. The interview was conducted by Editor-in-Chief Michael R. Harris, Managing Editor JulianGlenn Padgett, Staff Writer Arnulfo Garcia and former News Editor David Marsh.
For the first time in nearly two decades San Quentin News reporters were allowed to interview prisoners on Condemned Row, better known as Death Row. The eight prisoners interviewed are members of the East Block Advisory Counsel (EBAC). The interview was conducted in the East Block Chapel, a small area with benches. A fence separated members of EBAC and San Quentin News reporters.
EBAC was created to represent the Death Row community. It is a group similar to the Men’s Advisory Council (MAC) of the general population that addresses inmate concerns. EBAC was formed in 2008 with the approval of now-retired Warden Robert Ayers Jr.
San Quentin News reporters interviewed EBAC Chairman Lemar Barnwell, Vice Chairman Dwayne Carry, Secretary James Robinson, Dexter Williams, Bob Williams, Ryan Marshall and Paul Henderson. Also participating was L. Samuel Capers, contributing writer for the S.Q. News column “Voices from the Row.”
San Quentin Lt. Rudy Luna, Administrative Assistant to the Warden, arranged the interview and explained, “Each prisoner is elected from their assigned yard by their peers to assist in conflict resolutions between prisoners. These meetings are held every Tuesday with a sergeant or lieutenant, and also once a quarter with the warden.”
EBAC’s council members represent two sections of Death row, North Seg and East Block. N-Seg is the main line for Death Row and to be considered for N-Seg an individual must be disciplinary free for five years.
At first the Death Row inmates were reluctant to talk but they opened up after the sensitive subject of executions was introduced, especially the execution of Stanley “Tookie” Williams in December, 2005. Death Row inmates believe that Williams, co-founder of the Crips and convicted of four murders, had rehabilitated himself with his anti-gang books for adults and children. The inmates feel that if despite this change Williams was executed anyway, then there is scant hope for them.
As to how they live on Death Row, many prisoners have their own distinct philosophy. One of them equated Death Row to a “dysfunctional retirement home.”
These prisoners asserted that the public is given inaccurate information about life for the condemned inmates. For instance, Robinson protested that the media reported that Tookie Williams was still “hanging out” with gang members up until his execution, which Robinson said was not true. He said, “In this place we wonder if compassion, kindness and love exist.
“It’s a big circus while it [an execution] is happening. And you’re sitting there talking to someone who’s about to be executed. [Tookie] was so calm and positive,” said Robinson. “He was trying to make it better for me. This man who was scheduled to die was doing what he could to calm me down.”
According to the men, what affected them most was how Williams was de-humanized during the execution process. Kevin Fagan of the San Francisco Chronicle wrote, “The first catheter slid in messily at the crook of Williams’ right elbow, taking just two minutes to seat but spurting so much blood at the needle point that a cotton swab was soaked, shining deep red before it was taped off.
“In pain and annoyed by the medical technician’s inability to locate his vein, Williams locked eyes with the nurse and asked. ‘You guys doing that right?’ The first stick happened at 12:04 and 36 minutes later Tookie Williams was pronounced dead.”
The prisoners for this interview sensed that the public’s interest in Death Row is more morbid than humanistic. They said that Death Row prisoners generally submit to their fate, accepting the reality that the State of California is committed to carry out their death sentence.
Other concerns the inmates expressed were about food, dental, medical and programming. They wanted to know if Death Row inmates receive the same food and religious meals as mainline inmates do.
Later, the San Quentin News contacted East Block Culinary Correctional Officer Brown, who said, “Death Row has their own steam line next to the steam line that serves general population individuals and is the same food served throughout the institution.” He also said, “In addition, procedures are being established for delivery of Halal food to the row.”
Another major concern of Death Row inmates was their dental care, which they said has not improved even after the federal ruling in the Plata-Coleman v. Schwarzenegger case.
“No, that has not improved,” said Marshall. “We go to our dental screening appointments and after that we won’t see anyone for another year. It took me 14 months to get my dentures.” The inmates said that one man on Marshall’s yard has been in serious pain with a cavity, waiting to see a dentist, for five months. “The dentist service is inadequate,” Carry said.
Other medial concerns involved over-the-counter drugs that have been discontinued by the federal receiver, Clark Kelso. “Over-the-counter medicines have been eliminated,” said Marshall. “We don’t have the route to get the medicines we need.”
Some inmate observations were not what you might expect. Said Bob Williams, “I have somehow managed to become a better person than I was when I got arrested at 18. Sadly or greatly, coming to Death Row is the best thing that has ever happened to me in my life.”
To be continued…