I’ve been reporting on prisons in California since June 2007. Every time I’d walk through the Sally Port of the prison, there to the left was death row. It was always a place that was off limits.
Whenever I would ask, and I asked almost every time I went inside, are you sure I can’t go inside Death Row? The Public Information Officer would make it very clear that it was a flat no. No one in the press goes inside Death Row. I would ask them why, and they would say, there’s safety and security concerns. And that’s kind of the standard response, safety and security of the institution. The only person who can really say, ‘You can go inside Death Row,’ is the Secretary of the Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation, Matt Cate.
One day in 2012, I had my chance to ask him to say yes.
“Matt Cate, apparently you are the only one who can actually authorize press access. So I want to ask you directly. I’d be willing to sign any waiver. I’d be willing to wear any protective clothing. Would it be possible to have press access inside these facilities? Death penalty. Protective Housing Unit and Adjustment Center?”
“Well, it’s a difficult problem,” Secretary Cate said, looking me in the eye, “as you know it’s complicated. I’ll consider it. I’m happy to have a further conversation about. I do want people to see the conditions there for example, because we’ve done a lot to improve the conditions at San Quentin. I go there myself on a pretty regular basis because it was pretty bad only five, six, seven years ago. The conditions there were really bad. And so I do want people to see that.”
The interview ended. And about two weeks later I got a phone call from the press office and they said, ‘We’re giving you access to Death Row.’ And that’s when it all started.
As we approach the entrance to the first of San Quentin’s three Death Row cellblocks, an officer calls out to Lieutenant Sam Robinson, the prison’s Public Information Officer and my guide through the prisons’s Death Rows, “Good afternoon, Lieutenant.”
“How ya doing brother?” Robinson calls back.
“Big man, big man,” the officer responds.
It’s now June 11th. I’m headed into San Quentin State Prison with Lieutenant Sam Robinson to visit for the first time any press has been on, in Death Row in the State of California in eight years.
A gate closes behind me and then another opens, a long line of officers with guns are standing on a rail that goes up the wall. Their guns are aimed down, their eyes are steeled on the wall of cell blocks, five stories of caged men.
There are three different sections of Death Row. The Adjustment Center is where everybody starts their death sentence and if they behave badly, it’s where they go back to. North Segregation is for a select few who have behaved well for years. And East Block is for everyone else. Five hundred men are sentenced to end their days in East Block.
“East Block structurally mirrors our major housing units here at San Quentin,” says Lieutenant Robinson as we enter the block of cells. “That they’re all five stories high.”
I ask Lt. Robinson if I can interview the inmates in their cells. He says I can interview any inmate willing to talk to me. I approach the cell of a middle-aged man named Walter Cook. “Hello,” I say as the large man moves toward the gate of his cell, the front of the bars covered in a sheet of black perforated steel.
“How ya doing?” Cook says.
In 1994, a jury convicted him of three counts of murder and sentenced him to death.
“So you have a phone in front of your cell,” I ask, “why?”
“Make legal calls,” Cook says, “talk to family, friends.”
“How long do you have access to the phone?” I ask.
“We get the phone like every other day, like once in the morning and once at night,” Cook says.
Cook has been here on Death Row for 20 years. He has two kids. One twenty, and one twenty-one. They visit every other week.
“You’re not in contact with your family, you have nothing. You have something to keep your sanity. We’re not like people portray us up on the movies, crazy, deranged people. I get it from tv, everybody child molester, rapist. You know. It seems like that’s the stereotype that everybody here, that’s what they are. Even the people that’s innocent, they be all, if you’re here, you got to be guilty. That’s not necessarily true.”
“Are you?” I ask.
“No, I’m not guilty,” Cook says.
“You’re not guilty?” I ask again.
“I’m not guilty,” he says again, a little laughter in his voice, as if he knows how that must sound.
“You’re innocent.” I say.
“You did not do it.” I say again, “Are you sure?”
“I’m positive,” Cook says, this time more serious.
“I really appreciate you taking the time to talk with me,” I tell Cook.
“Alright,” Cook says, easily “No problem.”
We move on to the farthest end of the tier. I notice there’s a pink sign attached to the gate of the last cell. It identifies the inmate as visually impaired. His name is Justin Helzer.
“Hello,” the man of about 30-35 calls back.
“How are you?” I ask
“I have a lot of medical problems,” Helzer says, his voice slurred, his eyes darting up and down.
“Oh, I see. Ok.” I say as an offer to leave if he wants me to. “I’m just doing a story about the conditions on Death Row. How do you feel about the conditions on Death Row?”
“Speaking from a medical standpoint,” Helzer says, sitting on the edge of his single bunk, leaning against the narrow edge of the cell wall. “It’s hard to see the doctor. For instance I only see the doctor once every two or three months unless it’s a visible problem. Then the nurse will schedule an appointment to see the doctor prior to my scheduled rotation.”
“How long,” I ask, “have you been here?”
“I’ve been here since 2005,” Helzer says, “but I was arrested since 2000. I was fighting my case from county jail for five years.”
“Are you guilty,” I ask, ready for him to say no.
“Yes,” Helzer says, “I kill people. Yes I do.”
“You did kill people?” I ask, surprised.
“Yes, I killed two people,” Helzer repeats, no hesitation in his voice. “Point is, I’m not. I wrote a letter of apology to the family members of the deceased. I apologized. It was so misdirected. I’m so sorry and it’s like a past life. I’m so not that person anymore. And so I don’t have a problem admitting what I did. I’ve taken responsibility for it. I’m not proud of it. To say it was a mistake is a huge understatement. I can’t express how sorry I am. It was so unnecessary. But I don’t want to talk about my case.”
“So you’re vision impaired?” I ask, changing the subject.
“I’m totally blind. What it was,” Helzer says, stumbling a bit, “It was a suicide attempt. I stuck two five-inch pens into my brain through my eye sockets. It didn’t kill me.”
“When did you do that?” I ask, trying to make sense of what he has just said.
“About a year and a half ago,” Helzer says.
“Oh, I see.”
“So it left me blind and partially paralyzed,” he says. “I was just tired of Death Row. And it was a failed suicide attempt.”
When he said that, I didn’t know what to say. I just felt like I had to stay in my role as a reporter. If he was going to say it so straight up, I felt like I had to take it straight up and just keep going, and that’s what we did. So while we talk he’s sitting on the edge of his bunk and he turns his face away from the cell door. I ask him what he thinks about the Death Penalty.
“It’s all politics,” Helzer says flat out, like this isn’t he first time he’s thought about it and now he has come to a conclusion, “Oh Death Row, tough on crime. It’s not a deterrent. The Death Penalty is not a deterrent. I’ll tell you why. One, is when people do commit crimes, they are not thinking, ‘Oh my gosh, I might get the death penalty, I better not do this.’ They’re in the moment. They want what they want. They have short-sighted. They don’t forsee the consequences of their actions because they’re impulsive. They do whatever they do, whatever crime it is. Now thinking about the ramifications. So that the notion that the death penalty is somehow a deterrent is a false premise.”
“What if people say they want the death penalty,” I ask, “just because they want people to be punished.”
“Let me tell you,” Helzer says. Then he laughs. “You can punish people plenty by giving them LWOP.” (He means life without the possibility of parole or LWOP.) “Besides, there are people here on Death Row for thirty, forty years and they haven’t gotten killed. And they have so many more appeals left to them. So no one’s getting killed. No one’s getting executed.”
“How do you see the rest of your life?” I ask.
“I don’t know,” Helzer says, “I just take one day at a time. Just one day at a time.”
So we are now going into the Adjustment Center.
“Once we step inside the facility,” Lt. Robinson tells me, his voice dropping, serious, “the officer at the door is going to want to see your ID. Again, he’s going to ID you and then as soon as we step inside and the door closes behind us, there’s what we call the Unit Isolation Log, which details all the movement in and out of the facility, whether it be inmate or staff entering and exiting the facility, we document all of the movement in and out of here. And so we’ll sign into that as we enter the Adjustment Center. Again, the Adjustment Center is a prison within a prison. Our staff don’t have the ability to leave the facility, the Adjustment Center themselves. There’s an officer on the exterior of the facility who controls the key that allows their egress and, in and out of the facility.
The Adjustment Center is the place where every person sentenced to Death Row in the State of California, unless they’re a woman, starts their Death Row sentence and they’re put in boxes. Like individual cement contained boxes. These individuals live in these cells alone twenty-three and a half hours a day.
They’ve brought me out a green vest. “What kind of vest is this, Sam?”
“This is a stab-proof vest,” Lt. Robinson says, “inside a prison we’re not necessarily worried a whole lot about people shooting at us. We’re more worried about inmates having crude items they’ve manufactured to stab us or punch us with. So this vest here protects all of your vital organs. Just because a guy is handcuffed and is escorted by two staff members here in the facility, it doesn’t negate them from acting out violently, such as kicking our staff. There’s actually one individual in here. This individual is identified in cell 1AC4. His name is Tuliapa. Over the course of the last couple of decades, he’s actually successfully retired four of our staff members here in this facility due to assaults he’s perpetuated on them. Those individuals were assaulted to the point that their injuries were extremely severe and they were never, ever able to return to duty.”
This is the place in California where the most dangerous individuals, who have commited the worst crimes, often times gang leaders are kept. This is the worst of Death Row.
“If you’re here in the Adjustment Center, you’re not functioning well in any other facility. And this is the highest security housing unit we have at this facility. I worked here in the Adjustment Center for three years as a supervisor and I’m an African-American male. And so it would seem like I would be offended by someone throwing out the N word to me on a regular basis, right? Or it would seem like I would have some type of sensibility about that. But working here in the Adjustment Center it just goes right over my head. I’ve been called that so much here in this facility that it’s almost like saying ‘blue’ or ‘orange’ or whatever the case may be. It has no value or no meaning to it.”
He says when he was there, the cell doors were just bars and the inmates would throw feces and urine on the officers. They called it gassing. But in 2004, prison officials made that impossible.
“It was drama here in the facility,” Lt. Robinson says, “we changed the physical structure in here in that we removed all of the cell bar fronts and replaced them with solid concrete cell fronts. So the front of the cell was concrete. The sliding door in front of the cell was concrete. And so that’s prevented the individuals from committing those assaults of gassings and darting our staff here in the facility.
I stand along and listen and watch. Down the empty hall I see a white envelope on a clear line of filament slide out from under one of the solid cell doors. It sits there for a moment. Then another white envelope attached to another line of clear filament shoots out over the filament of the first. While I’m watching the envelopes slide up and down the floor of the tier, Robinson walks up.
“How do they do that?” I ask.
“Lots of practice,” Lt. Robinson says.
“So how do they do it? They put it on a string…”
“Put it on a string,” Lt. Robinson says, “slide it through a little sliver under their door, which is less than half of an inch.”
“But how does,” I ask, watching the now four envelopes slide up and down the floor, “that was way down there. That must have been six cells down. But how does he get it to come all the way down here?”
“With a little bit of inertia,” Lt. Robinsons says, “he’s able to get it going in one direction and then he gets help from someone in the cell next to him and they keep moving it down the facilty.”
By now there are five envelopes shooting up and down the cement floor. The mail has arrived. “The mail has arrived,” Lt. Robinson says, “and many times in this facility it’s not just mail. It’s something more obvious than that.”
Robinson turns from the tier and waves Officer Taylor over. “Hey Paul, somebody just fished something to cell number 10.” He lowers his voice. I can’t hear exactly what he’s saying, but it’s serious. In seconds, a team of six officers appear, canister of pepper spray and handcuffs are hanging from their thick belts. As they prepare to enter the tier, officers place thick protective glasses over their eyes and disposable gloves on their hands. As the first gate slides back, Lt. Robinson orders me to turn and follow him out of the area.
“Can I watch? Let me watch. I mean I want to see what happens. No?”
I’m not allowed. Officers direct me out a back door to a yard of cages. There Lt. Robinson stops to explain what is happening. “Essentially, what’s just taken place is we observed inmates receiving contraband because anything they send down a tier on a fish line is considered contraband. If it leaves their cell headed to another individual, it’s illegal inside the facility and so essentially, our staff is going down the tier to remove that individual from his cell.
“Why can’t I witness that treatment?” I ask.
“Because as you can see,” Lt. Robinson says, “the facility, the physical structure of the Adjustment Center, there’s not a lot of space in here and if things go sideways inside of there you and I would just really be in the way. There’s nothing that we could do…”
“If they had to move that inmate out of that inmate out of that environment…” I begin.
“Well, they are moving the inmate out of his cell,” Lt. Robinson says, “cause they have to go inside and search his cell.”
“Could they hold him out in that open area?” I ask.
“They could either hold him out in the open area, or they bring him to the middle to the center holding cell that we walked past in the facility,” Lt. Robinson explains.
“Would he resist that?” I ask.
“You never know. You never know,” Lt. Robinson says.
Robinson says I can talk to any inmate who will talk to me.
An officer asks an inmate returning to his cell from his time out in a cage on the yard, “Want to talk to the media?” The inmate looks at me and shakes his head.
“As you see can see,” Robinson says, “when we move them, we move them one inmate into the facility at a time. In comes the next inmate.”
“He doesn’t want to talk to me either?”
I’m surrounded by officers. The inmate has an officer at either elbow and an officer behind him with a baton. “You want to talk to her?” Lt. Robinson asks the inmate being moved back to his cell.
I’m supposed to say, ‘What would you like to tell me about your life inside solitary confinement in the Adjustment Center, on the record, for public radio. And each of the inmates looks at me, “Are you sure you don’t want to talk to me?” like am I crazy?
“No I can’t. I’m sorry,” one of the inmates standing a few feet in front of me says, officers holding tight to his elbows. “Why can’t you?” I ask.
“I don’t want to,” he says.
“Do you think you’ll get in trouble or something?”
“No I just don’t want to.”
“You know they have to go back to the yard and deal with their comrades,” an officer says.
Then, one of the inmates, a tall, lean black man takes a look at me and says yes.
The inmate is places inside the black holding cell in the hallway, his handcuffs stay on.
And he turns around and he looks at me.
“My name is Carmen Ward. Conditions here in the Adjustment Center are horrendous, unfair, biased. It is restricted in everything you do. Everything. What the Adjustment Center is for is for a brief punishment, right? Prison is violent, I get that. But at some point, people have to be told when their punishment ends.”
Ward’s been in the Adjustment Center for seven years and says he has no idea when he’ll be able to leave. Robinson says there’s a process for getting out of the Adjustment Center but that Ward has yet to follow it. One thing that’s become clear to me is that a prisoner’s quality of life on Death Row is heavily impacted by whether they follow the prison rules. If inmates behave in accordance with the rules, if they’re compliant, there’s a chance they can be transferred to North Segregation.
Robinson and I walk to a cage at the end of a long walkway. He reaches over for a phone at the side of the cage.
“Drop the bucket,” he says in the receiver before hanging it back up.
I ask him what that means.
“Drop the elevator. North Segregation is actually six stories up and it’s an isolated housing unit that was designed many, many years ago to house our Death Row population.”
North Segregation. The most desired unit of Death Row. North Seg is where you get to go if you don’t have any problems. If you are good on Death Row, this is where you want to be. On the other hand it’s where they send you on a death watch. So when you are up for an execution, that’s where you go.
When we reach the top, we step out to a hallway and a series of locked gates that lead to one floor of sixty-eight cells.
“The inmates who live in this facility are in a much different environment than the one we just witnessed over in the Adjustment Center. In that they’re walking around pretty freely in a contained environment. In the Adjustment Center, no one walks the tier freely. Here in North Seg, they walk the tier freely. I believe they release them out of their cells at about seven in the morning and essentially they hang out until about 1:30 in the afternoon.”
We’re going up some stairs from the cells to the yard.
“To the yard for North Segregation,” Robinson says.
At the top of the stairs, the door opens out to a roof and a beautiful west-facing view of Mt. Tamalpais. “Wow. What a view.”
Most of the men on the other side of the fence are just standing over in the distance and I’m looking at them, and they’re looking at me. “Hello,” I say.
“How’s it going?” Lt. Robinson says to some of the officers and men on the yard. One of the men wearing dark sunglasses approaches me and we start to talk. His name is Curtis Ervin.
“This particular program is not a true reflection of the entire Death Row because this is quote, unquote, ‘an honor program.’”
“What’s the honor part of it?” I ask.
“There are more privileges than East Block Death Row,” Ervin says, “more movement.”
“How do you get on North Block Death Row?” I ask.
“Waiting list,” Ervin says, “no write-ups, no 115’s.”
You have the opportunity to put your name on a list and the only way someone’s going to get off the top of the list is if they are executed or they die of natural causes or they commit suicide.
“How do I know if somebody’s is willing to talk to me?” I ask Lt. Robinson.
“Ask,” Lt. Robinson says.
“Should I just yell out?”
We make our way back down to the North Segregation tier and I’m allowed to walk along the tier and interview, again, anyone.
One of the cells I approach is the cell of Douglas Mickey, “Oh, you have nice lighting. How did you design that?”
“Just put a piece of paper on a lamp,” Mickey says, “it’s better than a bright light.”
There’s kind of a glow, like an orange glow in his cell. He sleeps on the floor and uses the surface of his bed as a desk. And he says he was a country boy. “How long have you been here?” I ask.
“Since ’83,” he says.
“Actually, I got it for jaywalking. That’s what you’re here for on Death Row.”
In 1980, he was convicted of two first-degree murders and sentenced to death, “And I’ve been a hunt, fishing guy in Alaska, and I really love the outdoors. But I could survive in here. I can stay productive.”
This hunting, fishing man has been locked up in this cell for 32 years.
“You don’t have any trees though,” I say, wondering how he survives without nature.
“I’ve got one right here,” Mickey says.
So he reaches down, says he has a tree. And I’m thinking a tree? And he reaches down and he holds up, “Bonsai,” this six-inch high macramé tree in his hand. “She’s taking a picture of your tree.”
“Pull it back just bit,” I ask, so I can take a picture of his tree.
“Take it easy,” I say as I walk down the tier.
“Tell Jerry I said hi,” Mickey says as we leave. I think he means Jerry Brown, the Governor of California.
Down at the end of the tier, inside the very last cell, a man is sitting on his bunk, playing the guitar.
“And this is…Mr. Ervin. You’re playing.”
He stops briefly, but I encourage him to continue, “Keep playing, I want to record.”
Just as Ervin begins to play, Robinson says it’s time to go, “We got to get going.”
I follow Robinson back down the tier, through the security gate and out through the big steel doors, passing guards and guns.
“Bye. Bye. Bye.”
It’s a relief to be out of the cellblock, walking in the warm sunshine. It’s a feeling the condemned men I’ve just left behind will probably never have and it occurs to me, that the men I’ve just spent time with are probably never going to see another reporter in their lifetime.
Now when I ask if I can go back on Death Row. I ask if any other reporters are going on Death Row and it’s no. Do you have any plan for letting any reporters go on Death Row, no. It was a one shot deal.