San Quentin Blues

The prison guards' union angrily ripped the rug from under the governor in February

It has been nearly two months since officials at San Quentin State Prison threw open the doors for a day and let a select few media representatives peer inside the fabled penitentiary's death row -- for the first time in 31 years. Eleven journalists were invited. Since then dozens of others from as far away as Germany have called to ask for a similar tour. "Unfortunately, I've had to tell them that what we did in February was a rare, one-time opportunity," says Vernell Crittendon, the prison's information officer.

Although Crittendon's superiors at the California Department of Corrections would hardly frame it as such, the decision to open death row to outsiders, if only for a few hours, was strictly political. The idea of allowing journalists to view the outdated and crumbling quarters where the state's 614 condemned male inmates are housed (condemned women are kept at Chowchilla State Prison) was to help ignite Gov. Gray Davis' push to build a new death row at San Quentin.

Fat chance.

In fact, the governor's proposal to float a $220 million bond issue to pay for new digs for convicted killers at a time when thousands of teachers are getting pink slips and the state is turning its back on everyone from college students to people in need of artificial limbs qualifies as one of the more curious pet projects by a politician in recent memory. That's because it doesn't appear to have a constituency. "I don't know of anyone in the Legislature who thinks it's a good idea," says state Assemblyman Joe Nation (D-San Rafael). He and fellow Democrat Jackie Goldberg, a Los Angeles assemblywoman, warned Davis in a letter that they would not vote for the draconian budget cuts he has put forth to rein in the state's estimated $35 billion budget shortfall unless the death row proposal is excised. San Francisco's powerful Democratic state senator, John Burton, has told lawmakers he's not enamored with the idea. Elizabeth Hill, the independent state legislative analyst, issued a report criticizing the plan as not well thought out, and suggested that it makes more sense for the Department of Corrections to examine the possibility of moving death row to a less expensive location.

Even the California Correctional Peace Officers Association, the politically powerful prison guards' union, which funneled more than $1 million to Davis' re-election campaign, has yanked its support. It was the prison guards whom Davis is widely assumed to have been trying to please in proposing the new death row. But the union angrily ripped the rug from under the governor in late February after he announced the closure of a women's prison in Stockton, a move the guards didn't like. Lance Corcoran, the union's executive vice president, has come out swinging, even calling the Davis proposal "voodoo prison economics."

As a result, sources at the state Capitol and elsewhere say Davis' ambitions for a new 968-bed death row at San Quentin appear doomed, at least for this year. Some lawmakers say they will be surprised if the governor doesn't throw in the towel. "It's an idea whose popularity is only slightly less than the popularity of the governor," says Marin County Supervisor Steve Kinsey, who has long advocated closing San Quentin and incorporating its 432 acres of bayfront real estate into a residential and commercial village that would include a regional ferry port and commuter rail center. According to this vision, some of the prison's 19th-century buildings would be preserved as part of a historical park. "Once again, the governor is standing out there with an idea that doesn't make sense now, and from Marin County's standpoint, ever," Kinsey says.

Regardless of how it plays out, the proposal has rekindled debate over both the future of San Quentin and the wisdom of California's death penalty law. Even ardent opponents of capital punishment concede the need to replace the woeful facilities in which condemned inmates are housed at San Quentin. "It's an issue that doesn't lend itself to easy explanation," says law professor Elisabeth Semel, who heads the Death Row Clinic at UC Berkeley. At a time when taxpayers are being asked to sacrifice, she sees the proposal as "an outrageous expenditure" even while acknowledging that overcrowding on the row "has contributed to conditions that in some respects are inhumane" and unsafe for both inmates and prison guards.

Perched on San Francisco Bay 20 miles north of the city, San Quentin from a distance resembles a sprawling tourist resort, with its cream-colored walls and red-tiled roofs. There are sweeping views of the waterfront and the Marin hills, a point not lost on real estate developers and others who've long salivated over the prospect of clearing the prison and building on one of the best remaining spots for development in the entire Bay Area. But as the state's oldest penitentiary, built in 1851 using forced labor during the Gold Rush, it is also a living relic, with a deteriorating infrastructure to prove it. Until the 1960s, salt water from the bay was pumped in for showers and toilets. During an El Niño storm a few years ago a guard tower almost toppled into the bay, prompting the state to put a 30-foot concrete plug under it for stability. Built to house about 3,000 prisoners, the prison now accommodates more than twice that many.

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