Impending Closure of Death Row

A couple of days ago I spoke on KCRW about the announced closure of death row at San Quentin. Here’s the story as it appeared on the KCRW website, followed by some additional thoughts from me:


Governor Gavin Newsom announced this week a plan to shut down the notorious death row at San Quentin State Prison. The plan would move the prison’s most condemned inmates to other maximum security prisons over the next two years, in an effort to create what Newsom calls a “positive and healing environment” at the Northern California prison. 

San Quentin has the largest death row population in the nation — nearly 700 total. And while California hasn’t executed anyone in more than 15 years, Newsom also signed an executive order imposing a moratorium on executions in 2019. 

The facility was originally a ship, and in the mid 19th century, prisoners themselves built the prison, explains UC Hastings law professor Hadar Aviram. “It’s a dilapidated facility, there are no solid doors, there are bars on the doors, ventilation is terrible. So it’s a facility that was built for 19th century standards. And just because of inertia, we are still incarcerating people in the same condition.”

She points out that the facility is located in a geographically beautiful area surrounded by expensive real estate. “In many ways, [it’s] a waste to have a prison there where people don’t enjoy the seaview and are incarcerated in terrible conditions.”

However, she notes that people currently aren’t being executed due to the moratorium, and since 1978, the state executed only 13 people, and more than 100 died of natural causes during that time. 

“Just during this moratorium that Governor Newsom introduced, more people died on death row from COVID during the horrific outbreak at Quentin than we executed since 1978. So I’m sure that is giving some pause about the utility of the exercise of keeping people there,” Aviram says. 

Because San Quentin is so old, inmates there suffered from coronavirus more than those at modern and well-ventilated facilities like the state prison at Corcoran, she says. Plus, it houses lots of people who are aging and infirm, who were thus already immuno-compromised and vulnerable to the virus.  

Emotional and political reasons may be driving votes

California voters approved a ballot measure in 2016 to speed up executions, and the measure included a provision allowing death row inmates to be relocated to other prisons where they could work and pay restitution to their victims.

Aviram says over the years, there have been several attempts to abolish the death penalty through voter initiaties, but they always lost by small majorities. 

Through inquiries, polls, and conversations with people, she says she realizes: “People are voting for the death penalty largely for emotional, sentimental, political reasons. They are more in love with a fantasy of having a sentence that’s reserved for the worst of the worst, and can deter people.” 

She describes death row in California as “basically a more expensive version of life without parole that costs us $150 million a year.”

She adds, “It’s probably a good idea to think of the death penalty as undergoing the same process as some of the people who have been sentenced to death, which is rather than an execution, the death penalty is going to die a slow natural death itself, just from disuse and from this gradual dismantling.” 

However, some district attorneys continue asking for the death penalty in capital cases, though the state doesn’t execute people anymore, as they hope the governor might revive the policy, Aviram points out. However, she says, “I think that because of the national trends … it is extremely unlikely that it’s going to come back.”

Newsom’s reimagining of prisons and what’s missing

When the governor says a “positive and healing environment,” Aviram says this means a life where inmates find meaning and usefulness (do some jobs). 

But this doesn’t completely eliminate the death penalty, she says. “Because there is still one very big and expensive piece of the death penalty that is still with us — and that’s death penalty litigation.”

“We have this facility where people are sentenced to death and are still litigating themselves post-conviction, and that litigation is actually the lion’s share of the expense. So it’s only really going to go away if and when all of those sentences are commuted, and these people are no longer litigating their death sentences at the state’s expense. So that is the missing piece.”


Some more thoughts: First, it’s been interesting to follow the fanciful, but often idle, talk about the real estate potential of Quentin. Readers who have been to Quentin know how beautiful the village is and how glorious the waterfront vistas are. There are plans to close four prisons, but no definite plans for Quentin. Any prospects of selling that land are to be viewed with ambivalence. On one hand, what a waste to have a prison so close to the water, without windows to enjoy the view – a place that combines suffering with beauty. On the other hand, it would be a terrible loss for the folks housed at Quentin, dilapidated and dangerous as it is, to be strewn about prisons in remote locations in the state, far away from the progressive energy of volunteers and rehabilitative programming richness of the Bay Area that people so desperately need for making parole. In my wildest fantasies, we close Quentin down, transform it into a resort/retreat for nonviolent communication and community healing, rebuild with huge ceiling-to-floor glass walls overlooking the ocean and gorgeous walking trails, and offer all the men well-paying jobs running the resort.

About the money: I predicted much of this demise, based on national trends, in Cheap on Crime, and still think that the deep decline of the death penalty is in no small part due to the financial crisis of 2008. The fact that we still spend a sizable pile of money on death row, despite the moratorium, is not surprising, and shows that the disingenuous efforts to save money via Prop 66 didn’t fulfill their purported purpose. In 2016, when giving talks about this, I used to draw the triangle of home improvement; write in its three corners: good, fast, and cheap; and tell people, “you can have two.” We can’t compromise on having a “good” death penalty (one in which there are no constitutional violations and factual mistakes), and so, it cannot be fast or cheap. The big savings will only roll in when we get rid of the litigation piece.

There’s no better proof that the death penalty is on its last leg than the fact that Joseph Diangelo, the Golden State Killer, was sentenced to life without parole. If not the most notorious and heinous criminal in the history of California, then who? And the logic in Diangelo’s case applies to everyone else–why the death penalty? So they can continue litigating at the state’s expense and die a natural death? Whose interests does this serve?

About the actual job of relocating death row people to other prisons/general population: this is going to be a complicated and delicate job, and my fear is that it will be entrusted to folks who are not tuned in to the complexities. They would be moving people who have been effectively “at home” in solitary confinement in unique conditions, many of them for several decades, into facilities with much younger people and a very different energy. There could be animosities and alliances that are difficult to predict and go beyond crude racial/gang affiliations. This is true, generally speaking, for every prison transfer (long time readers remember the fears and concerns surrounding CDCR’s plan to comply with the landmark decision in Von Staich through transfers to other facilities); in the case of the death penalty, there are other factors, not the least of which is the unique combination of notoriety and frailness of the people to be transferred.

There’s also the question whether dismantling death row, what with its symbolic hold over the Californian imagination, slows down the dismantling of the death penalty itself. Without the physical reminder of the remnants of this archaic punishment, and with the growing resemblance of the death penalty to the two other members of the “extreme punishment trifecta” (life with and without parole), does the effort to abolish the death penalty lose its steam? The uphill battle for activists will be to spin this development to argue that the death penalty has been defanged beyond its utility; now that we’re left with only its negative aspects (to the extent that some people think it has advantages) it’s time to stop hemorrhaging state funds for incessant litigation.


Today I’m at the Annual Meeting of the Western Society of Criminology, speaking about FESTER. My panel starts at 8:15am island time in the Waianae room – come say hi!

Essential Readings for CCC3: COVID-19 Meets Mass Incarceration

In anticipation of our upcoming symposium about COVID-19 and mass incarceration, here are a few sources that our attendees might like to read. It’s not an exhaustive list; rather, it focuses on some of the themes we will be covering throughout the symposium.

Prisons, Disease, Medicine

Ashley Rubin, Prisons and jails are coronavirus epicenters – but they were once designed to prevent disease outbreaks, The Conversation, April 15, 2020

Misha Lepetic, Foucault’s Plague, 3 Quarks Daily, March 4, 2013

Margo Schlanger, Plata v. Brown and Realignment: Jails, Prisons, Courts, and Politics, Harvard Civil Rights–Civil Liberties Law Review 48(1) 2013: 165-215.

Osagie Obasogie, Prisoners as Human Subjects: A Closer Look at the Institute of Medicine’s Recommendations to Loosen Current Restrictions on Using Prisoners in Scientific Research, Stanford Journal of Civil Rights & Civil Liberties 6(1) 2010: 41.

COVID-19 In Prisons

Brendan Saloner, Kalind Parish, Julie A. Ward, Grace DiLaura, Sharon Dolovich, COVID-19 Cases and Deaths in Federal and State Prisons, JAMA, July 8, 2020

Hadar Aviram, Triggers and Vulnerabilities: Why California Prisons Are So Vulnerable to COVID-19, and What to Do About It, Tropics of Meta, July 3, 2020

Hadar Aviram, California’s COVID-19 Prison Disaster and the Trap of Palatable Reform, BOOM California, August 10, 2020

Sharon Dolovich, Mass Incarceration, Meet COVID-19, University of Chicago Law Review Online, Nov. 2020

Matthew J. Akiyama, M.D., Anne C. Spaulding, M.D., and Josiah D. Rich, M.D., Flattening the Curve for Incarcerated Populations — Covid-19 in Jails and Prisons, The New England Journal of Medicine, May 2020

Oluwadamilola T. Oladeru, Nguyen-Toan Tran, Tala Al-Rousan, Brie Williams & Nickolas Zaller, A Call to Protect Patients, Correctional Staff and Healthcare Professionals in Jails and Prisons during the COVID-19 Pandemic, Health and Justice, July 2, 2020

The San Quentin Catastrophe

Megan Cassidy and Jason Fagone, 200 Chino inmates transferred to San Quentin, Corcoran. Why weren’t they tested first? San Francisco Chronicle, June 8, 2020

AMEND SF and UC Berkeley, Urgent Memo – COVID-19 Outbreak: San Quentin Prison, June 15, 2020

Megan Cassidy, San Quentin officials ignored coronavirus guidance from top Marin County health officer, letter says, San Francisco Chronicle, August 11, 2020

Al Jazeera Front Lines, Pandemic in Prison: The San Quentin Outbreak, October 28, 2020

In re Von Staich on Habeas Corpus, A160122, California Court of Appeal for the First District, October 20, 2020

Solutions and Policies

Hadar Aviram, Gov. Newsom’s Release Plan Is Not Enough, San Francisco Chronicle, July 10, 2020

James King and Danica Rodarmel, Gov. Newsom must release more people from prisons to protect Californians and save lives, The Sacramento Bee, July 11, 2020

Jason Fagone, California could cut its prison population in half and free 50,000 people. Amid pandemic, will the state act? San Francisco Chronicle, August 16, 2020

Ruth Wilson Gilmore in conversation with Naomi Murakawa, Haymarket Books, April 17, 2020

Reproductive Justice, Women, and Gender in CA Prisons

Sulipa Jindia, Belly of the Beast: California’s dark history of forced sterilizations, The Guardian, June 30, 2020

Jason Fagone, Women’s prison journal: State inmate’s daily diary during pandemic, San Francisco Chronicle, June 14, 2020

Valerie Jenness, Transgender Prisoners in America, September 5, 2016

AJ Rio-Glick, COVID-19 Adds to Challenges for Trans People in California’s Prisons, Vera Institute of Justice Blog, July 7, 2020

COVID-19 in Immigration Detention Facilities

COVID-19 in Jails, Prisons, and Immigration Detention Centers: A Q&A with Chris Beyrer, Johns Hopkins School of Public Health, September 15, 2020

American Bar Foundation, Impact of COVID-19 on the Immigration System

Carmen Molina Acosta, Psychological Torture: ICE Responds to COVID-19 with Solitary Confinement, The Intercept, August 24, 2020

COVID-19 Prevention in Prisons and the Problem of Buy-In

Throughout the last few months, there’s something that’s been constantly gnawing at me and I haven’t had a moment to process in an organized way. I started thinking about this a lot when the AMEND report came out in June, reporting that people at San Quentin were afraid to get tested or report symptoms, lest they be placed in isolation in a death row or solitary confinement cell. And it came up again when I listened to the Assembly hearing on the PPE wearing failure and the commentary about the “physical plant” being “not conducive to compliance.” Then, I thought about it again when I read the AG’s briefs yesterday, detailing all the “reasonable” COVID-19 prevention steps they took. And finally, I felt a sense of despair and futility when I read this well-intended missive from Brendon Woods:

My immediate, gut reaction to the idea of vaccination priority was this: If I were incarcerated in one of the places that experienced horrific outbreaks–or anywhere else in CA, really–why would I believe anyone from CDCR or CCHCS offering me a vaccine, treatment, PPE, quarantine space, transfers, or anything else, except a ticket out of the system? And why on earth would I want to cooperate with anything short of being released? The sense of futility comes from a strong core realization that the trust between the state and incarcerated people is so deeply broken that, even when reasonable steps are being proposed, they’ll be understandably doubted. The long history of being swindled and harmed, especially in the context of healthcare, is so embedded in the system’s DNA, that any prevention or treatment initiative must take into account poor buy-in.

I’m not a doctor or a public health expert, but it seems obvious to me that, when designing a public health response, one important consideration is public buy-in. As this paper explains, effective COVID-19 prevention measures depend, in big part, on an enormous amount of groundwork to foster compliance, including virtual community building, fostering solidarity between high-risk and low-risk groups, and trust building between decision-makers, healthcare workers, and the public. What we’ve seen in the U.S. on the national level is instructive of what happens when the government not only fails to make this effort, but actively stokes the opposite sentiments. I suspect that even a reasonable administration would have had trouble containing the virus in such a big country with deep pockets of ignorance and misinformation, but given the Trumpian legacy of actively creating misinformation and division, this is going to be a huge challenge for whoever runs the COVID-19 response for the Biden administration.

What we’re seeing in CDCR facilities is a crystallized example of this problem. Efforts to implement pandemic prevention methods have to contend with deep mistrust of prison authorities in general, and prison healthcare in particular, which have profoundly painful historical roots. Osagie Obasogie reminds us of the horrific history of harm and deception in prison healthcare in this piece:

As early as 1906, Dr. Richard P. Strong—director of the Biological Laboratory of the Philippine Bureau of Science who later became a professor of tropical medicine at Harvard—gave a cholera vaccine to twenty-four Filipino inmates without their consent in order to learn about the disease; thirteen died. Though this provides an early modern example of using prisoners as human subjects, it certainly was not the last. Twelve inmates from Mississippi’s Rankin Farm prison became test subjects in 1915 to study pellagra—a disfiguring and deadly disease characterized by skin rashes and diarrhea. Though common wisdom at the time suggested that pellagra was a disease caused by germs, Dr. Joseph Goldberger—a physician in the federal government’s Hygienic Laboratory, predecessor to the National Institutes of Health—thought it was linked to malnutrition characteristic of Southern rural poverty. After Mississippi Governor Earl Brewer promised pardons to all participants—an inducement to participate in research that would be intolerable today–Goldberger tried to prove his theory that poor diet caused pellagra by subjecting inmates to what many called a “hellish experiment”: eating exclusively high-starch foods such as “corn bread, mush, collards, sweet potatoes, grits and rice” that caused considerable pain, lethargy, and dizziness. Despite their pleadings to end the study, prisoners were not allowed to withdraw. And, in an early 1920s experiment that was as bizarre as it was gratuitous, 500 inmates at California’s San Quentin prison had testicular glands from rams, boars, and goats implanted into their scrotums to see if their lost sexual potency could be rejuvenated.

But one needn’t go that far back. Nonconsensual sterilization of incarcerated women was still going on as of 2013, when the practice was exposed and excoriated. The Guardian’s Shilpa Jindia explains:

Despite federal and state law prohibiting the use of federal funds for sterilization as a means of birth control in prisons, California used state funds to pay doctors a total of almost $150,000 to sterilize women. That amount paled in comparison to “what you save in welfare”, one doctor told the news outlet.

Against this backdrop, you would expect public health experts at CDCR to bend over backwards to build trust, so as to engender cooperation. Instead, they’ve done exactly the opposite. The most obvious problem, of course, has been the botched transfer from CIM. I can finally put my finger on what seemed so disingenuous in the AG’s brief from yesterday: “[P]etitioners’ attempts to suggest prisoner transfers of any kind are not safe or effective is not well taken.” The irony of taking offense at people’s understandable mistrust after this colossal fiasco is completely lost on them, which I find breathtakingly obtuse.

But the transfer issue is just one of many. Why would prisoners comply with PPE-wearing requirements when they see guards, frequently and openly, flouting these requirements with no consequences? Why would people rush to report symptoms and get tested when the consequence is that they’ll be put in places which they’ve associated, for decades, with punishment and deprivation? Most importantly, given the history of using prisoners as experiment subjects, how could CDCR and CCHCS possibly lay some trust groundwork when rolling out a vaccine, so that people don’t suspect them, understandably, of subjecting them to untested, unreliable treatments?

This is the real crux of the problem. It’s not that “the physical plant is not conducive to compliance.” It’s that the atmosphere of neglect, indifference, and cruelty, and the resulting deep mistrust, does not engender compliance, and at every turn in this situation, prison authorities have moved the compliance needle further out of whack. This problem is a big part of why the only way out is to release people. Whatever other preventative steps the authorities are taking, regardless of their objective usefulness, need to actually be adopted by people on the ground to succeed. Hanging informational posters and handing out masks might work with some fantasy environment in mind, but it doesn’t work with the institutions and people we actually have. And it doesn’t seem like the AG’s office, or CDCR officials, have even begun to comprehend the depth of this problem.