Wednesday, May 18, 2011

Life On San Quentin's Death Row

Willie Johnson, who has been imprisoned on Death Row in San Quentin State Prison in California for more than 20 years, wrote the following essay.  An Actual Innocence hearing for his case is scheduled this fall. 

San Quentin State Prison in located in prime real estate overlooking the San Francisco bay.  Designed to house five thousand inmates, it currently holds twice that number.  Of these ten thousand or so inmates, seven hundred are on death row.  Isolated from the majority of the general population, death row inmates are divided into three groups. 

The main group is located in East Block and they are considered Grade A inmates.  But they have their own exercise yard so they never come into contact with other inmates, while the rest of the East Block inmates are divided into five other groups and these groups share five yards.  These inmates are divided for various reasons.  Some because of conflict and others because if the nature of their cases.  This is also done so that the prison staff can manipulate the situation.  By having prisoners separated in this fashion, prison staff can maintain control by creating an environment of mistrust among the prisoners, which keeps the heat off of them. 

On the yard, there are four card tables, a dip bar, pull up bar and single basketball court, which are shared by sixty to seventy inmates.  Because of the racial factor, inmates have worked out a schedule so that each group gets a chance to use the dip and pull up bars, but anyone can play basketball.  Each group has a card table. 

The next group of Death Row is located in North Seg.  North Seg is located on top of North Block.  And it’s where the original death row was housed.  It has sixty-four cells and all the prisoners are considered model prisoners.  Although they are also considered to be Grade A inmates, North Seg inmates are considered to be “above’ East Block inmates.

All inmates are housed in single man cells.  But North Seg inmates get more yard time than the others.  Other than that privilege, their status is the same.  Privileges consist of contact visits, phone calls and quarterly food packages.  Inmates are also allowed a certain number of books in their cells.  As for appliances, Grade A inmates are allowed a television, radio, electric fan, type writer and electric razor.  If an inmate loses his Grade A status due to a rule violation, then all these items are subjected to being sent home.  Commissary is another privilege given to death row inmates.  Grade A inmates are allowed to spend up to two hundred dollars on commissary and Grade B inmates are allowed to spend fifty five dollars.  Canteen consists of everything from writing materials to food items.  As for Grade b inmates, they are considered program failures and most of them are housed in the adjustment center.  There are also some housed in East Block. 

The ones in the adjustment center are assigned to walk alone in small cages on the yard.  Each cage has a sink and toilet.  Lined up in three rows of nine cages, these inmates go outside every other day for four hours.  Most of the inmates there are labeled gang bangers by the prison administration. Some of them have been there for over 20 years.  The only way out is to snitch on their friends.  While on Grade B, inmates are not allowed contact visits, phone calls, fans, electric razors or quarterly food packages, so most inmates try to avoid Grade B, which is really hard.  Not only because of some asshole police, but also because of some knucklehead inmates.  Sometimes it’s hard to distinguish between guard and inmate.  That’s because some guards are infatuated with the criminal lifestyle and are known to mimic criminal behavior.  Not to mention that many of them come from the same environment as the prisoners.  What a lot of people don’t know about California prisons is that there’s a major rift between inmates from the north and inmates from the south.  And this crosses all racial lines.  The only way he different groups come together is when there’s a racial issue.  Other than that, it’s a north/south thing.

There is another group worth mentioning.  They are the mentally ill.  Some were disturbed before coming to prison and others became ill while incarcerated.  They are known to cause havoc with other inmates and guards alike.  Some nights they bang on their bunks and scream at the tops of their lungs all night long.  It’s not unusual to hear about them gassing (throwing a concoction of urine and feces on) police, or about guards setting one of the perpetrators up to be harmed.  Although there’s a large number of psychologists assigned to death row, the mentally ill population on death row is continually growing.  The number of suicides continues to increase as well. 

The other thing that is killing prisoners at an alarming rate is the food.  There have been more inmate deaths from the food than form execution.  But the prison staff writes them off as natural causes.  You would think the medical staff would speak out on this issue, but they continue to allow it to happen which peaks volumes about the level of health care that inmates are receiving on death row.  Undernourishment and psychological deterioration are the natural causes for premature death on death row.  So let it be known that the California Prison System is in violation of its citizens’ human rights.  And no matter what a person has done to be sent to death row, they are still entitled to the right to be treated humanely.

Willie Johnson
C-35635 5EY55
San Quentin State Prison
San Quentin CA 94974


  1. The law cant get it right, so until they do, death row should be ABOLISHED...PERIOD. As far as prisoners having the "right" to be treated humanely...they forfeited that right when they broke the law and entered prison. For those incarcerated wrongfully...I feel for them, as they should not have to be locked up with the scum of society. Prisoners should get 1) bread, and 2) water once a day and be allowed to live in a 6x6 cell, with NO leaving it whatsoever...the guards can come by and spray a hose to give you a shower, and you should get a small pail to urinate and defacate in, with 1 roll of toilet paper per month. If prisons were ran this way, crime would NOT be an issue here in this Country.

  2. Paul, you and I are in agreement that the death penalty should be abolished. However, I feel that the way we treat our prisoners speaks more about us as a society, and as human beings, than about what those who are incarcerated deserve. How does what you have posted here reflect on you?

  3. Crimes are not typically committed in the light of a contemplation of possible future repercussions. Crimes are usually the screams of agony of circumstances many are born into, circumstances that already confine, and do not give sufficient tools to transcend by one's efforts. Life is really hard for many people that you see every day if you go out. To "treat someone like the scum of society" means that assumptions are made about a broad swath of the population that leaves them already condemned, without the power of voice. How can the innocent clear their name then? How can the guilty redeem themselves? If redemption doesn't matter, then why are we locking them up? Wouldn't we make it simpler by just killing them all? The answer is that it cannot be simple when we have a compulsion for power (and so we grasp for the most crude kind). And so we torture.