Most people already have a fairly clear concept of what it's like when an execution occurs, since an ocean swell of media rolls over totally engulfing and covering San Quentin prison, but they're usually unaware of the other Death Row prisoners who have died here. Many condemned men have stopped breathing and disappeared with scarcely a ripple in the media pool.
A whistle will pierce through a cell block. "We've got a hanger," booms over the housing unit's loudspeakers. Guards spike open a cell door, handcuff a dead-body's hands before they cut the hangman noose. Tossing the corpse into a bright orange stretcher, the badges haul the remains of the suicide away. The property officer boxes up the deceased man's belongings, trustees hose out the cell, another condemned man is shoved inside the four-by-ten foot box, and the relentless, mind-numbing daily routine of Death Row grinds on and on and on.
Often it's fair easy to see the mental deterioration, suicide seems inevitable, and it's almost a relief when the condemned man ends his misery-filled existence.
A friend of mine, Ron Fuller, piled all his belongings onto his steel bunk and set them on fire. From six cells away, I could feel the heat radiating on my mind when I stuck my mirror outside my cell bars to see what the commotion was about. Crackling flames roared out of Ron's cell reaching up and licking the tier of cells above us.
Whistles blowing, heavy boots pounding, the guards arrived and brought the blaze under control. Handcuffing Ron, the uniforms yoked him out of his cell. Marching past my cell with a guard on each arm, Ron's unfocused eyes were spinning wildly, the hair on his chest and arms had been singed away, and I could smell charred flesh.
After treating his burns, Ron was turned over to the California Department of Corrections' psychologists who opined he was faking suicide. You see, the State of California isn't allowed to execute anyone who's insane — it's the law. So the psyches employed by the State of California asserted Ron was playing insane in order to fend off the gas chamber.
Prison officials charged Ron a couple of hundred dollars for the cell's fire damage, tossed him inside anther four-by-ten-foot box and pretty much ignored him. Finally, he made a noose, tied it to his bars, stuck his head inside the loop, pulled it tight and quietly died.
One day, which at first glance seemed no different than any other, I spent a couple of hours playing basketball on an exercise yard. After the game, everyone shook hands, agreed to play again, and one of the layers, who I barely knew, went back to his cell and hanged himself. I saw Ron's suicide coming, but this one really stunned me. It's bewildering, how does a guy go from shooting hoops on a fine summer day to suicide in a dark cell with the minuscule time-frame of an hour?
Suicide, killed by another condemned prisoner, shot and killed by a guard, death due to old age or lack of decent medical care, and the condemned man's life passes with scarcely anyone out there in the world noticing. It's not death that brings the media cameras and intense public scrutiny to San Quentin's Death Row, it's only the executions with their time-honored rituals of last meals, last thirteen stops into the gas chamber, that attracts the interest of taxpayers.
The Consent Decree
Many citizens believe California's Death Row simply consists of men-in-cells lined up in a neat row, each awaiting his turn to march into the gas chamber, inhale, and fail to metabolize cyanide gas. Although it was once a lot like that, day-to-day existence has evolved a bit.
In response to a federal lawsuit filed by condemned prisoners, San Quentin officials in the early 1980's signed a consent decree agreeing to provide certain living conditions to the men on Death Row. [On July 11, 1997, the State asked the federal court to terminate the decree under the Prison Litigation Reform Act — ed.]
Essentially a contract, the decree guarantees condemned prisoners an opportunity to venture out of their cells to an exercise yard for about five hours each day.
An instructor from San Quentin's Education Department teaches high school course through a cell-study program.
An arts & crafts program is included in the decree. Condemned prisoners have entered art competitions and won prizes in many medium. Guards are allowed to sign contracts with condemned men in order to buy their work. It's fairly common for guards and other staff members to bring photos of their families onto Death Row, so a condemned artist can paint their portraits.
A phone has been installed on each tier. Condemned men can call collect their friends, families, and the attorneys handling their death sentence appeals.
The Death Row visiting room is open four days a week, and has murals on its walls painted by a condemned artist. this is the only place inside San Quentin where Death Row prisoners and guards mingle together without bars between them or chains on the condemned. Children run around playing tag between the chairs, a cheerful atmosphere reigns much more reminiscent of a group of vacationers in a departure lounge waiting to board a charger flight to Hawaii than an annex of the Death House.
Since the consent decree was signed, California's Death Row population has quadrupled to well over four-hundred, we've outgrown the original Death Row, and now there's actually three San Quentin Death Rows.
A four Death Row is located at the California Institute for Women in Frontera where the handful of women condemned by the State of California are housed while their appeals wend through the courts. Frequently, I've asked the classification committee to house me there so I an experience everything California's Death House has to offer, but so far prison officials have stamped "DENIED" on my requests for transfer.
North Segregation housing unit is the original Death Row at San Quentin. Nicknamed, "The Old Death Row" or "North Seg," the original Death Row houses thirty-four men each of its two tiers. Located on the sixth or top floor of the North Block housing unit. many of California's most infamous, Charles Manson and Sirhan Sirhan, spent time locked inside its cells. Now considered the luxury penthouse suite, condemned men must submit a request to the classification committee in order to be considered for housing within North Seg. Carefully screened for their potential to live well with others, if approved for transfer, condemned men are placed on the long waiting list for a cell inside the Old Death Row's friendly confines. During the two years I was housed in North Seg, no one committed suicide, no one died, it was a protected sanctuary far removed from the everyday hazards of prison.
Breakfast and dinner are the two hot meals provided each day. The tier guard pushes a hot cart down the tier, shovels food onto paper trays, and shoves one into each cell. The food isn't terrible, its better than the food I was served on aircraft carriers during the four years I spent in the United States Navy. Sandwiches, fruit, and chips in a paper bag make up the noon meal.
After breakfast, the guards pull three men from each tier out of their cells, place them in holding cages, so they can conduct cell searches. In theory, the search is for weapons, drugs, and escape paraphernalia. In reality, North Seg is such a quiet, tranquil place, the guards don't have any violence or serious discipline problems to cope with. In their boredom, the badges are reduced to simply counting how many socks and other clothing men have in their cells and taking away and exceeding the limitations imposed by the property regulations.
After the cell searches, the cell doors are unlocked, and the condemned men are allowed to roam the tiers until about 2 p.m. The atmosphere is so relaxed, North Seg prisoners are even searched coming and going from their cells to the tiers or the exercise yard.
On the tiers, there are a couple of tables. Condemned men use them to play cards, study education course, or work on their art projects. Others simply hang out and talk, or lazily stroll up and down the tier.
A green exhaust stack (used to vent cyanide fumes from the execution gas chamber) rises high above the North Block. In the shadow of the exhaust stack on the room of North block there is an exercise yard. Weightlifting equipment, basketball, jump-ropes, heavy and speed punching bags are provided for exercise under the consent decree.
Condemned men on the Old Death Row aren't allowed any "tude --" slang for bad attitude. If tude creeps into a condemned man's speech or even his body language, the guards order him to pack up his personal belongings and he's beamed into one of the other two Death Row housing units.
Located inside San Quentin's East Block housing unit is a second Death Row. It's officially designed "Death Row II," but more commonly, it's simply referred to as East Block. A huge warehouse-type building, many different species of birds next in its nooks and crannies. Starting their singing with the daylight, they fly onto tiers and scamper around while prisoners share their breakfast with them. Feral stay cats also live inside the housing unit, they hide out during the day and prowl around at night. Although condemned men also fed them, the cats seem to prefer stalking the birds for their meals.
Like North Seg, there are two sides to East Block, the Bay-side and the Yard-side. Each side has five tiers of 54 cells (a few less on their first tier where a handful of cells have been converted into administrative offices), more than 250 condemned men live on six of the tier tiers — dead men stacked up all the way to the rafters.
Existence in East Block is far removed from the tranquil serenity of North Seg, noise pumps out of the cells, off the soundtrack to the constant, chaotic bedlam rampaging throughout the cell-block. Most guards in East Block don't sweat tude in a prisoner's words or body language. Pretty much the line is drawn at threats of violence directed towards staff members, and, of course, actual violence is frowned upon.
Although mandated by housing unit policy, daily cell searches rarely occur inside East Block. Excess personal property in a cell is pretty much ignored by the guards. The only exception is if a condemned man broadcasts way too much static-filled tude, and fills to overflowing the ears of the guard assigned to his tier. Retaliation usually occurs in the form of a "house-tossing." A tossing consists of dumping the prisoner's personal belongings onto the floor of his cell and trampling on them. the uncertain message: "Modify your behavior or find another tier to live on!" Most prisoners comply with the message because, next time, the guard might not simply toss the prisoner's property, he or she might tear it up and/or throw it away.
If a tossing doesn't get through to a doltish tude-man, a guard can always bring a piece of steel to work, give it to the unit sergeant, and claim he or she found it inside the prisoner's cell. Whether or not the steel has been sharpened, it's metal stock, a potential weapon, the sort of weapon that has been found sticking out of the chests of guards, and that is more than enough to warp-drive a condemned man off an east Block tier into a strip cell deep inside the Adjustment Center — the third Death Row at San Quentin.
As in North Seg, breakfast is served off a hot cart and yard release follows breakfast. But unlike North Seg, East Block guards don't simply unlock cell doors and let the condemned men saunter onto the tier and out to the exercise yard. In fact, there isn't any tier exercise in East Block, prisoners are only allowed to roam around the yards.
Before leaving their cells, East Block prisoners strip off their clothing, and are ordered to strike various nude poses while a guard peeks into the prisoner's body cavities looking for drugs or weapons. Metal detectors and airport-type scanners are employed to search prisoners and their yard clothing for shanks — prison slang for illicitly obtained pieces of steel sharpened on the cement floor of cells and fashioned into stabbing weapons.
Handcuffed, the prisoner backs out of his cell onto the tier under the watchful eye of a guard, armed with a mini-14 rifle, manning the catwalk. Venturing out of east Block, the prisoner walks down a guard-lined concrete path heading for the gate of his assigned exercise yard.
There are six exercise yards for prisoners housed with East Block. Each yard is so small and narrow, they seemingly resemble dog runs. Lined up one after another, the yards are separated from each other by sets of two chain-linked fences with a no-man's land between them. Four of the yards are for condemned prisoners. The other two are for non-condemned prisoners who have been yoked out of the general prison population and slammed down inside East Block because they've received a rule violation report from some badge. The rule violation could be as deadly serious as mayhem to totally silly as aggressive eye-contact with a staff-member — whatever that means.
Giving his name and cell number to the guard on the gate, the prisoner's name is checked against the yard list. Stepping through the outer-gate, it's slammed closed. Reaching through a slot in the gate, the guard removes the handcuffs, a switch is thrown, the inner-gate electrically hums open, and the man finally strolls onto the exercise yard.
"Free at last, free at last, praise the Lord, I'm free at last!" Well, as free as you can be on a prison yard surrounded by barbed and razor wire strung along the top of the walls and fences. Running halfway around all the exercise yards is an elevated catwalk bolted to the outside wall and manned by guards with rifles. Directly across from the armed guards is a high cinderblock wall, a yellow monolith, that's pitted and scarred from bullets that have banged off its imposing surface.
The condemned yards in East Block have the same exercise equipment as North Seg with the exception of dumbbell weights. A few years ago, an East Block condemned man hammered another one over the head with a dumbbell. The fact that the hameree survived the hammering clearly demonstrates the physical weakness of the prisoners or the denseness of their skulls — take your pick. Prison officials removed the dumbbells from the yards, but barbell weights are still available for weightlifting or hammering fellow condemned prisoners in their craniums.
When you stand on the off-white concrete floor of one of the six exercise yards, and gaze up at the yellow wall on one side and the guards with their rifle on the other, you feel as if you've fallen into a kiln that traps in both the heat of the sun's rays and the bodies of society's outcasts. On any given day, forty, fifty, sixty, or more prisoners are crammed onto each yard. All the bodies packed rightly together in concert with the heat radiating from the concrete and cinderblock walls creates a conspiracy to pull the oxygen out of the air, and often a panicky, claustrophobic atmosphere descends to smother and finish killing off any last vestige of humanity still staggering around inside the walls of San Quentin's death row.
Although violence on the East Block yards isn't an everyday occurrence, it's certainly not an unknown stranger, either. Condemned prisoners, who for the most part aren't exactly blessed with an abundance of social tolerance, fray easily. On a hot summer day when the sun kicks the thermometer into the danger zone, an errant basketball, an unintentional body-to-body contact, a carelessly flicked cigarette can lead to combat.
In these final few years of the Twentieth Century, guards still try to control prisoners in the same manner they tried and failed with for hundreds of years -- bullets, and once let loose from a guard's rifle, a bullet doesn't respect the artificial boundaries imposed by the chain-linked fences separating the six yards. If the .223 round from the mini-14 rifle doesn't immediately slam into the body of a prisoner, the bullet whacks off the concrete floor or cinderblock wall, fragments, and then scatters, ricocheting around until the pieces come to rest inside someone or something. I've seen many prisoners wounded by bullets or bullet fragments.
One prisoner was attacked by another prisoner. Instead of shooting the assailant, the guard shot the victim in his elbow. Ripping off his sock, the victim wrapped it around his arm, used his teeth to tug it tight, and the bleeding stopped. The victim's quick action may have saved his life, but did not help his arm — amputated.
In another incident, a fist-fight broke out between two prisoner. A guard on the catwalk fired three shots in rapid succession. One combatant dove and the other topped onto the ground while a red rain showered down. The man who dove was spattered with blood but otherwise escaped the altercation unscathed. The man who toppled over was very still, blood rivered out of a gaping hole in his head to gently lap around the gray brain matter and whole skull fragments now littering the concrete.
Calling from the catwalk down to the guards responding to his whistle, the guard, who had done the shooting, said, "He had a weapon, it's over there."
I stared up at the guard in disbelief because I hadn't seen a weapon. Other prisoners, who also hadn't seen a weapon, started jeering the guard's statement.
Searching the yard, the guards didn't find a weapon. The badge on the catwalk with the freshly fired rifle in his hands shrugged, and said, "Well. I saw stabbing motions."
There hadn't been any stabbing motions, it was just another typical free-swinging prison fist-fight except that this one resulted in a guard's bullet caving a skull.
In the third incident, a condemned prisoner was shot in the upper-chest and fell into a pool of his own blood when he wasn't fighting, but simply heatedly arguing with another condemned man standing about ten-feet away. The shot man was DOA at the Marin General Hospital.
When an incident occurs, the guards on the catwalk order all the prisoners on the yard, whether they're involved in the fight or not, to get off their feet and plant their bodies onto the concrete floor. Whistles fill the air and more guards come running.
When the guards regain some semblance of control over the yard, the sergeant orders any wounded prisoners to come to the yard gate. Any man so damaged that he cannot make it on his own power is picked up by prisoners designated by the sergeant, carried and stuffed in between the gates. Closing the inner-gate, yanking open the outer-gate, the guards lock handcuffs on the wounded or dead before they're loaded onto wheelchairs or bright orange stretchers. Red blood drops trace a crimson trail as they're whisked off to the hospital or to be claimed by next-of-kin.
Next, one-by-one the rest of the prisoners are ordered to rise and walk to the gate. Handcuffed, they're taken inside East Block. Caged, they're strip-searched for weapons or any cuts or bruises that might indicate involvement in the "physical altercation."
About five-years ago, a condemned man on my assigned East Block exercise yard got it into his head to put his hands on my body and give me a good shove. I, of course, handled the situation with my usual lack of poise and grace. Clenching hands into fists, I bounced them off his skull a couple of time. Hearing the mechanical clack of a rifle bolt slamming home a bullet into a chamber, I flicked my eyes up to the guard on the catwalk, he was aiming his rifle right between my flicking eyes. Instantly, I shoved my antagonist away from me and tossed my minds into the air.
"Get down, RIGHTNOW!" the guard screamed at me.
Only when my butt touched the concrete did the badge rotate his rifle up and away from my cranium.
Watching the rifle swing away from its dead-on aim at my head, I realized that I'd been involuntarily holding my breath. Inhaling, I fed oxygen into my wildly pumping, overdriving heart.
Whistles pierced the air, boots pounded pavement, a sergeant joined the scene and ordered me to the yard gate.
Handcuffed, my body was yoked out of the gate, and two guards marched me off to the Adjustment Center, the last and the worst of San Quentin's Death Rows.
The Adjustment Center
The name "Adjustment Center" evokes an image of a feel-good," I'm Okay — You're Okay" type of place where condemned men are housed and counseled so that they can learn to cope with the brutal realities of existing day-to-day on Death Row. That concept couldn't be further from the truth. The Adjustment Center is the deepest, darkest hole at San Quentin. Once upon a time it was the disciplinary housing unit for the entire Department of Corrections, every prison sent its recalcitrant problem prisoners there. Now it mostly deals with Death Row discipline problems, warehousing a bit over one-hundred prisoners on its three floors of which about ninety are condemned.
The Adjustment Center, also called "the AC" or "That Other Place" is a very clean housing unit, it's antiseptic much like a hospital or a morgue. It's pretty quiet in the AC, but not the tranquil quiet of North Seg, it's like a sullen silence — a wild animal lying low, eyes firmly fixed on its prey, waiting an opportunity to pounce on the unwary.
No matter if you're a guard or a prisoner, just about everyone in the AC has buckets of tude running through their veins. In fact, the AC's door guard was even kind of nasty to the badges escorting me from East Block.
"Wait here," the AC guard told the East Block badges as he snatched my body and started pulling me inside the maw of the Adjustment Center.
"Need my cuffs back," one of the East Block guards protested and tried to follow me through the door.
"Wait here, I'll bring them to you," the AC guard slammed the door in the face of his fellow green uniform.
Locking me inside a cage, the guard ordered me to remove every piece of clothing from my body. After sending me through a strip search that made East Block searches seem like a casual glance, he gave me a whole different set of state-issue clothing to wear. Nothing you walk into the AC carrying or wearing accompanies you into a cell.
"Excuse me, officer," I said in my most polite manner. "These pants are too large, I wear 32's."
"We've two sizes here," he answered without a hint of sarcasm, humor, or humanity in his voice, "too large and too small. Which size you want?"
I kept the pair he'd already issued me. I thought then and still think now that it was a really good decision.
After a few hours in the cage, an AC escort guard cuffed me up, took me up the stairs to the third floor and locked me inside another cage.
An hour creeped by before the third floor guard appeared and ordered, "Get naked."
"Man, they searched me downstairs already," I casually but not disrespectfully protested, and didn't rise from my seat on the floor of the cage.
Sliding his club out of its ring on his utility belt, the badge firmly banged it against the side of the cage and stated in a bored tone-of-voice, "This's my fourth tour in the AC. I'm here cause I like it here. In the AC we get used to dealing with jerks, we kind of specialize in them, and I'm starting to suspect that you're one, Hunter."
Listening more to his bored tone than his words, I rose and started pulling clothes off my body, while wondering, why don't they just turn the AC into a nudist colony?
Finally, locked inside a strip cell, a cell with nothing much inside it except bedding, air, and me, I started to strongly suspect that compared to the other people roaming around inside the AC in green uniforms and state-issue blue, I wasn't a very tough guy.
My thoughts were verified with a vengeance when during my tenure in the AC, a condemned man broke free from his handcuffs while walking down the tier from the shower to his cell. Jumping on the two guards escorting him, the man was smacking both of them around until four or five more badges came running and buried the prisoner in an avalanche of green uniforms. Holding the prisoner down on the floor, the guards took turns booting the body and stomping on his skull until they grew weary, slowed, and finally stopped.
As the condemned man was dragged away, another condemned man called from his cell, "How yah doin', man?"
The bloody, lumpy, bruised man grinned through swollen lips, and answered lightly, "Not bad, I've been worse."
The guards constantly search AC cells, but the searches don't take too long because San Quentin does not allow AC prisoners to have very much property. In fact, AC prisoners are excluded from almost every aspect of the federal consent decree — no phone calls, they can't use the contact visiting room, no arts or educational programs, and they're only allowed three-days a week on their exercise yards.
The AC exercise yards are much larger than the East Block's yards, and seem even larger because there's nothing much on them except a basketball, a hoop, and a lot of really angry, dangerous men.
Essentially there's two different ways a prisoner can crash-land inside the AC. One is to receive a serious rule violation such s the one I received for assault and involvement in a physical altercation. The second is to be an identified member of a prison gang.
If the condemned prisoner's in the AC for a rule violation report, the classification committee will let him transfer back to East Block or North Seg if he remains disciplinary free for some weeks, months, or years depending on the seriousness of the offense. The only exception is an assault on a staff member. Officially, the term is thirty-six to sixty-months in lockup, but in reality, a condemned man charged with assaulting a staff-member is never leaving the AC and can only look forward to a pine box parole.
If an identified gang member, the condemned man will be released from lockup when he debriefs or dies.
My information about debriefing is second-hand from men who have dropped out. The gang member notifies prison authorities of his wish to dropout, he's hooked up to a lie detector machine, and is required to confess to a crime that he committed inside or outside of prison. Once his confession passes the lie detector, he's extensively questioned about every member of the gang. If the dropout isn't forthcoming about their dirty deeds, the debriefing is suspended and the prisoner is not allowed to transfer from the AC. Staff members let the gang know the man started debriefing, gang-bangers start threatening to kill him which tends to put a lot of pressure on the dropout to finish the debriefing and get out of AC. Joining a gang is serious business, dropping out by informing is deadly serious.
Since I was in the AC for an allegation of assault without a weapon on a non-staff member, and no deadly force was used or great bodily injury occurred, my charges weren't considered very serious in the realm of AC offenses. At my disciplinary hearing, my right hand was wrapped in a bandage because banging it off a rock-hard head had fractured it. With a hand still swollen to twice its normal size, it was difficult to deny that I had struck anyone, so I wasn't tempted to use the time-honored alibi which has never, ever worked with any disciplinary hearing lieutenant in the history of corrections: "It wasn't me, man. It was someone who looks like me, and the guard got confused."
I simply pleaded guilty.
Dropping the charge to mutual combat, the lieutenant recommended transfer back to East Block after only six-weeks in the AC while warning that my next write up for smacking someone would cost me six-months to a year in the Adjustment Center.
"Won't be a next time," I answered. But as is frequently the case, I was wrong.
About two-years later, a guard came to my East Block exercise yard and told me that I had a doctor's appointment. I knew I didn't have an appointment. But the guards have the guns and more importantly the bullets, so I cuffed up and sure enough I was marched to the AC.
After a week, I was cuffed and taken in my undershorts (the reason for only undershorts is so the committee can inspect your body for gang tattoos) to the classification committee in order to receive my yard assignment.
At the hearing, I asked the committee why I had been transferred to the AC.
Laughing without any mirth at my question, the men-in-suits told me to read by rule violation report.
When I told them that I hadn't received a report, they laughed again and placed a report on the table in front of me.
Running my eyes over the typed words, it was immediately apparent that another Hunter, one who wasn't on Death Row, had been written up for "Disrespect of Staff." They'd yoked and beamed the wrong Hunter into the AC.
When I brought this to the attention of the committee, the suit running the show became really angry. The man clad in rayon-plaid said I should have told the AC door guard they had the wrong prisoner.
Looking at each member with cynical eyes, I couldn't believe they didn't know a prisoner doesn't tell an AC guard anything unless he's begging for some flashlight therapy administered across the crown of his skull. Smiling, I finally answered, "In that case, I'd like to tell you that you've got the wrong Hunter on Death Row. Please take me to the East Gate and toss me out of San Quentin."
Didn't work, but they all got a chuckle (with a hint of actual levity) out of my wry words, until I added, "Mixing me up with the non-condemned prisoner also named Hunter is no big deal, since you can ship me back to East Block and nab him. But what would you do if you had shoved the other Hunter into the gas chamber instead of me?"
Those words stopped the laughter, but I never got an answer to my question. Guess there really isn't one.
Michael Hunter is a death row prisoner at San Quentin. In the second part of this series, Hunter describes the people on the row.
This piece was originally written upon request for the Dallas Morning News. A shorter version was recently printed in the San Francisco Chronicle and won the William James award for prose. Another version won the 1996 PEN American Center writing award for non-fiction. Hanging Loose Press, a literary magazine in New York, will publish excerpts from that in October, 1997.
Since this article was written there have been some changes to California's death row. In July, 1997, the state asked the federal court to terminate the consent decree under the Prison Litigation Reform Act. That issue is now pending before the court.
Following one of the shootings described by Hunter, the warden at San Quentin authorized officers to carry "gas guns" with rubber bullets as an option to standard rifles. In the face of media publicity over the number of shooting deaths throughout the prison system, the Department of Corrections made several changes to its shooting policy to reduce the number of deaths.