Death Be Not Proud, Part 1
I was at San Quentin State Prison doing my usual business. It was an interesting several days that included being forced to see patients in an extraordinarily cold x-ray room because no other space was available. I joked with the patients that I had to "ask a bunch of question, take your picture, and we're done." "What?" "I'm kidding, dude." I moved to to a secure unit to conduct assessments in a claustrophobic, windowless room with an elementary school-sized table and two ancient wooden chairs. The lieutenant informed me that 5 patients from "E-Block" could not be escorted over, and offered to take me to them. As we left, we passed an open "emergency equipment" locker that, among gas masks and batons, contained about 25 of the biggest rubber mallets I have ever seen. They reminded me of the county fair "test of strength"; use the giant hammer to ring the bell. I did not ask how these mallets were utilized.
The lieutenant led the way through hundreds of men waiting to get to the dining hall. "Make a path, men! Coming through!" Shoulder and elbow banging with inmates for 50-yards or so is, at best, nerve-wracking. Pointing, he instructed me, "Go through that gate, turn left, and go straight ahead to the door. Pick up the phone & they'll let you in." When I had turned left, I was facing an odd, lime colored wall and matching colored metal door. Above the door was a handwritten sign, "Condemned - East Block." Condemned? This is Death Row.
As it turns out, CA has three death rows: North Block, East Block, and the Adjustment Center, each with an increasing level of security. Oddly enough, San Quentin is not a maximum security prison, the majority of inmates at San Quentin are Level II security in a IV security level system. But 639 men are currently held between the three AdSeg, maximum-security Death Row units. North Block holds 70 inmates and is the original condemned facility, built in the late 1930's. North Block is a "prime location" in that admittance is by petition to the classification committee only. It is a relatively relaxed, generally non-violent housing unit, a significant distance from the main facility. Donald Beardslee, however, who lived in North Block for 21 years, was executed in 2005 despite clemency pleas to the governor emphasizing his model behaviour on the North Block. The vast majority of Death Row inmates are held in the East Block.
Upon entering East Block, there are two further gates at which your ID is checked and you sign the log indicating your presence. E-Block is an enormous building, with a massive cell block sitting in the middle of the building. As you stand facing the block, the Yard Side is to your left, and the Bay Side to your right, 54 cells long and 5 tiers high. Each side has a separate gate for access. Catwalks run atop the cell block, and gunners, who only shoot to kill, walk silently to observe from above. The amount of razor-wire contained in this building is astonishing.
I don't know exactly why, but I somehow presumed Death Row to be a contemplative place; condemned men living "exemplary" lives in contrition, attempting to demonstrate either their innocence or their rehabilitation as their appeals wind through the courts. I was wrong. E-Block is deafeningly noisy: hundreds of "conversations" being yelled at once; the usual pointless screams, yells, and animal noises; a virtually unintelligible PA system, giving constant orders or information, it is unknown; and an unrelenting hum/buzz combination that may be lights, electronics, or electricity. My first thought was that, for me, daily subjection to this level of noise would be unbearable, without even considering other factors. The air is damp, mainly from the bay, but pipes on the walls of the buildings leak, streaking rust down the sides of the white walls. And with 450 or so men with limited shower privileges and a dank old structure, the smell is awful. Since the passing of Proposition 7 in 1978 to restore capital punishment in CA, 14 men have been executed. They averaged nearly 19 years on Death Row before execution. I happened to at San Quentin while the sentencing phase of the Scott Peterson murder trial was happening. I looked around E-Block and thought, what hell on earth could be worse than this? Could dying be this awful?
You might wonder why, when I deal with pre-parole inmates with a mental health designation, I would find myself on Death Row. It is because some of the most violent, seriously mentally ill inmates, unmanageable in a Level II prison, are housed on the ground tier of Death Row. The only "saving" aspect to this classification of housing is that, for the most part, they are oblivious to their location. Many of their cells can be immediately identified because a large clear plexiglas screen stands in front of their cell to prevent "gassing," the throwing of any fluid, though it is nearly always bodily, onto custody staff. A CO pointedly described an inmate who held urine, feces, or a combination of the two, in his mouth and spit it on the CO who brought his breakfast.
On the Bay Side lower tier are physician offices, and it is here that these violent, grossly mentally ill inmates become "patients." They are double-escorted by 2-3 officers wearing stab-proof vests, helmets with faceguards, and surgical gloves. Patients themselves wear bright yellow jumpsuits held together by three ties in the front, and are handcuffed with their hands behind them, and many are outfitted with spit bags. They are locked into the cages seen across from the physician offices, and one by one, they are led into the dimly-lit office and locked into a similar cage. Approximately half are then uncuffed through a port, and sit on the built-in seat. A one-piece classroom desk was placed a distance from the cage, and the CO suggested, "for your own safety," that I not move closer.
By this point, I definitely felt out of my element. The patients, to a man, were floridly psychotic, disoriented, paranoid, angry, even hostile, and in one case, barely capable of maintaining a conversation. In each case I attempted the formal MMSE, but it was pointless. One man continuously paced in a small circle, and one man repeatedly asked, "When am I going home?" When I had "completed" an assessment, I walked out of the office and searched for a CO to remove the caged patient and transfer another. At one point, as I walked out the door, under the tier, I felt fluid drip onto my head. Was it a pipe? Was it running off the tier? Inmates are known to "flood" by plugging their sink or toilet and letting the water run until it fills their cell and runs under their cell door. At that point, their was nothing to do but tolerate it.
"Gassing" and "flooding" are both citable violations, but how to do you punish a man already on death row?
NEXT: The Adjustment Center