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Condemned Men Talking

A day on San Quentin's death row


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The order is for murder

And we've been there before

The men in black are coming back To serve the killing floor

—Lemmy Kilmister

One minute you're listening to Motörhead records and mourning Lemmy Kilmister's death while you dance around, a free man in your kitchen, and the next, you're standing in the harshly appointed and zoo-like yard of San Quentin's Orwellian named Adjustment Center, a 102-cell facility built in 1960, the solitary-confinement tier and most restrictive housing in the prison—and possibly the state.

The "A/C" is home to the worst of the worst offenders, not all of them condemned, though most, about 80 percent, are. It's a self-contained prison within a prison, and the guards aren't even allowed out once they check in for their shifts. It's the deepest hole you can find yourself in at San Quentin.

This is the first stop on the tour, and it's immediately apparent that we're going to need more of those green anti-stab jackets; there just aren't enough for all the reporters and cameramen, so some from other tiers are collected and made available as we squeeze into an Adjustment Center hallway and jostle our way forward to the gate.

The reporters can't all go on the tier at once, so we proceed in shifts through a metal gate, having already passed through two other gates, and that's not even talking about the first three gates we went through at the outset of the tour. Anyone who isn't already wearing eyeglasses has to wear a face-protection mask to guard against any bodily excretions flung our way by inmates; we all wear the protective gear until we check out of the prison with our invisible "Get Out of Jail Free" wrist-stamps, as Robinson calls them.

No media person has seen the inside of one of these solitary-confinement cells in over a decade. A few of the cells are empty, doors swung open, and the officers let me step up to the entrance and enter a foot or so into the cells, keeping a watchful look or, one might say, glare. There's an austere and off-putting peaceful feel to the tier that belies the daily dangers and stresses on both guards and prisoners alike; a creepy, treacherous monasticism prevails on this insular tier. That can change in an instant.

These men here are forever in a routinized and highly choreographed shuffle from one cage to another, and some are "indefinitely in leg restraints" as they are transported from cage to cage, Robinson says.

Two adjoining cells give a sense of the kind of privileges one can earn, whether an inmate is on death row or serving out a lighter sentence elsewhere in San Quentin, whose population hovers around 3,700.

There are two kinds of prisoners that transcend the Level 1 to Level 4 classification system (the Adjustment Center is Level 4), Robinson explains. There's Grade A and Grade B. Grade A follows the rules; Grade B doesn't.

One cell has a TV and walls filled with thong-wearing Latina pinups, while the next one over is absent any visible personalized touches beyond rolled-up white socks and a manila folder or two. According to online prisoner resources, death row inmates went on hunger strike here in 2013 in order, among other things, to get the same privileges the state affords the non-condemned. Robinson says that the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation gives equal access to earned privileges, regardless of one's classification.

But nobody in San Quentin is streaming Netflix, don't worry about it. The TVs are hooked into antennas and reception is limited to network television. Inmates can also listen to the radio.

This morning, there's only one inmate in his cell willing to talk to reporters, and it's Sunset Strip killer Douglas Clark, described by Robinson as a "prolific serial killer," who was associated with Carol Bundy and was rumored to be pals with her relative, Ted. Clark's capital crimes were rather heinous and involved a beheading, but "Sunset Strip killer" does have a sexy anti-celebrity ring to it, and Clark does his part.

INTERVIEW WITH A KILLER Reporters pepper Sunset Strip killer Douglas Clark with questions.
  • INTERVIEW WITH A KILLER Reporters pepper Sunset Strip killer Douglas Clark with questions.

Clark says he has been in solitary confinement for 33 years and that "this is actually the best facility that they have." Nobody visits him, Clark says, as he makes the best of what may be his greatest anti-celebrity moment of infamy since his incarceration.

Clark talks to reporters through a small vent in the closed-front cell door. Reporters press their mics against the vent and shout questions at the inmate, who shouts right back. He wears a straw hat and gives great quotage to the line of media waiting their turn. "You're a reporter's dream," one reporter tells him. Clark says he loves the Sacramento Bee—but the guards? Standard issue: they're corrupt, "a bunch of fucking morons."

Inmates spend all their time in these cells except for three and a half hours of yard time three days a week. One of the other whopping contrasts immediately evident is that San Quentin is really two prisons; its general population is among the least violent in the California prison system, even as it houses the most violent offenders in the state.

It's a prison that benefits mightily from a generally empathic Bay Area demographic with a volunteer cadre of 4,000 people who provide all kinds of programming, and Davis says the programs are what keep the violence in check.

And while San Quentin is famous for its Shakespeare productions and other reform-minded efforts at rehabilitation, little of that is available to the condemned. About a hundred of the condemned have access to hobby and craft programs, but that's about it as far as programming goes, Robinson says.

There are no restorative-justice programs for the condemned, either, no opportunities for inmates to meet with survivors of their mayhem, Davis says, because of security issues around inmate-civilian contact, a key aspect of restorative justice.

The contrast between general population and the condemned plays out in the functioning and upkeep of death row itself. Prison labor built the new $850,000 lethal-injection chamber, and prisoners are also at work on a project to retrofit cells in San Quentin's Donner building to expand death row capacity by 97 beds. That unit will open this month or next, Robinson says.

As we stand in the Adjustment Center, Robinson tells me about another inmate here whose penchant for violence ended the career of four corrections officers. We'll meet him soon enough.


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