A Look at the Life of Inmates on San Quentin’s Death Row


It’s both a lonely and crowded world inside the country’s largest Death Row, where hundreds of condemned inmates, stripped of nearly every freedom, wait around to die.

But for the more than 700 of the most notorious killers warehoused alone in cells in San Quentin State Prison, death likely won’t come at the end of a needle in the facility’s lethal-injection chamber.

That’s because nearly a decade ago, a federal judge placed a moratorium on capital punishment in California — bringing to a halt all executions.

For the first time since the death penalty was put on pause in the state, reporters on Tuesday got an in-depth look at the cold concrete corridors, locked cells and shackled inmates on California’s ever-growing Death Row.

“I don’t think I’ll ever live long enough to get out of here,” said 67-year-old Douglas Clark, who’s been in San Quentin since 1983. “But you get by. I’ve always been a very Zen person.”

Clark, an aging man with long, gray hair and an eye patch, looked little like his much-younger self — a serial murderer dubbed one of the “Sunset Strip killers” for a series of particularly grisly slayings in Los Angeles in 1980. He spoke Tuesday from inside a cell in the prison’s Adjustment Center, known by inmates as “the hole.”

Prisoners sent to the 102-cell hole are isolated because of their bad — usually violent — behavior in the main cell block, and are given limited time to exercise in outdoor metal cages.

In the yard Tuesday afternoon, inmates worked out in 8-by-10-foot, chain-link corrals while armed guards kept a watchful eye from above. Many of the prisoners spoke openly about their cases and have closely followed the state’s unresolved laws on capital punishment.

In recent weeks, supporters of two competing ballot initiatives — one seeks to scrap executions, while the other is trying to fast-track them — were cleared to gather signatures in hopes of changing the state’s laws.

“We are just left on a shelf, and that’s worse than being executed because you’re just waiting to die,” 42-year-old Robert Galvan said while taking a break between sets of pull-ups in his cage in the Adjustment Center’s yard.

Killed his cellmate
He was sentenced to die in San Quentin in 2013 after he killed his cellmate in 2010 during a gang dispute at California State Prison Corcoran, where he was doing time for a Fresno kidnapping for ransom and robbery.

Galvan and others on Death Row are considerably more likely to die at their own hand, from natural causes, a drug overdose, or by getting killed by a fellow inmate or prison guard, than by execution.

“To me, this is worse than death,” 41-year-old Raymond Lewis said inside his cell in the prison’s East Block, the five-tier, main Death Row cell block.

Lewis was sentenced to die for beating a woman to death with a 2-by-4 in 1988.

“If I had the courage or the heart, I would have ended it long ago,” he said. “I hope people understand, this is not a way to live.”

But that’s the way it goes on Death Row. Since 1978, when the Legislature re-enacted the death penalty, only 13 inmates have been executed, while more than 100 have perished from other means inside the prison walls.

A couple of doors down from Lewis was Richard Allen Davis, who got a death sentence for the 1993 abduction and killing of 12-year-old Polly Klaas in Petaluma.

The now-feeble convicted child killer hid inside his dark cell while reporters walked by — a stark change in behavior from his antagonistic courtroom theatrics that played out during his 1996 sentencing.

One tier above, convicted killer Andre Burton screamed from his cell.

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SOURCE: Chron.com, Evan Sernoffsky