By Adrian G. Torres
Published by the Mule Creek Post
In a January 31, 2022 press conference, California Governor Gavin Newsom announced his intent to stand by his decision to undo the state’s death row at San Quentin—the United States’ largest death row. Newsom plans to move all condemned prisoners to other California Department of Corrections’ facilities within two years, with the goal of turning that section of San Quentin State Prison into a “positive, healing environment.”
“We are starting the process of closing death row to repurpose and transform the current housing units into something innovative and anchored in rehabilitation,” corrections department spokesperson Vicky Waters said.
The last execution in California was 2006, and California remains one of 28 states that maintain death rows, as does the federal penal system. Many other states have abolished the death penalty, such as Illinois (accomplished by the vigilant work of prison reform advocates including Incarcerated Allied Media Executive Director Dr. Joan Parkin, who is also a writer for and supporter of The Mule Creek Post).
California is merging (previously) condemned inmates into the general population at several facilities. Corrections officials began a voluntary two-year pilot program in January 2020, that (as of the January 31 press conference) had moved 116 of the state’s 673 death row prisoners to one of seven other maximum security prisons. The men can be moved to: California Correctional Institution; California Medical Facility; California State Prison, Corcoran; Centinela State Prison; Kern Valley State Prison; Richard J. Donovan Correctional Facility; or Salinas Valley State Prison.
The Department of Corrections plans to submit proposed regulations within the coming weeks that would make the transfers mandatory, and “allow for the repurposing of all death row housing units,” Waters said. However, there are no plans to repurpose the never-used $853,000 execution chamber at San Quentin, which is in a separate area of the prison.
A ballot measure in 2016 required condemned prisoners to participate in prison jobs, with 70% of salaries going for restitution to victims. By the end of last year, more than $49,000 in restitution had been collected under the pilot program.
Under the state’s transfer program, these prisoners can be housed in solitary or disciplinary confinement, if officials determine they cannot be housed with others, although the concept is that former death row prisoners are intended to be interspersed with others (if deemed appropriate on an individual basis).
Waters adds, “There have been no safety concerns [thus far] and no major disciplinary issues have occurred.” The former death row inmates are counted more often and are constantly under supervision during activities, officials said.
According to the department, they are “carefully screened to determine whether they can safely participate in the program.” This includes a thorough review of security concerns, medical, psychiatric, and other needs of each individual, including personal behavior and notoriety.
Newsom imposed a moratorium on executions in 2019, saying, “The prospect of ending up on death row has more to do with wealth and race than it does with guilt or innocence. We talk about justice, we preach justice, but as a nation, we don’t practice it on death row.”
The move isn’t without controversy. Criminal Justice Legal Foundation president Michael Rushford, a death penalty supporter, says, “The underlying motive is to mainstream as many of these condemned murderers as possible … they’re moving [them] 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.”
When it comes to jobs and rehabilitative activities, former death row prisoners are treated similarly to those serving life without parole. Eight of 21 condemned female inmates are housed at the Central California Women’s Facility in Chowchilla, and may transfer to less restrictive housing within the same prison.