MY FAVORITE “PROPOSITION LADY” isn‘t who you might think. She’s the gal who hangs outside my local post office soliciting signatures to qualify propositions for upcoming State elections. She receives pay for the signatures she gathers. Recently I greeted her with the usual, “What’s new?!” and she presented me with a petition to abolish the Death Penalty. As I read it, standing in the glare of the midday sun in front of the post office, I experienced an epiphany. After 45-plus years, I suddenly no longer “believed” in the death penalty.
It occurred to me in a flash that most death-row inmates in California (unlike Texas) die of old age after decades of appeals (and appeals on their last appeal). I began to ponder the expense of maintaining prisoners who are clearly not going to be executed by the state. Then I wondered how many defendants were free or convicted of lesser charges because well-intentioned citizens were reluctant to sentence a defendant to the big “D”—regardless of how deserving of the defendant was of the punishment. With a little research I discovered all my questions had readily available answers.
OF ALL THE STATE PRISONS IN CALIFORNIA for men and women, San Quentin is the only one with a Death Row—a sterile version of Dante’s Hell. The gray granite walls, quarried and built by inmates over 150 years ago, match the hard cement floors. In the winter the cold fog rolls in under the Golden Gate Bridge with a bone chilling dampness which underscores the numbness of life without human contact. There’s no intimacy, no love, not even human conversation. Being sandwiched between San Francisco Bay and the cold Pacific Ocean, summers are only slightly warmer with an occasional spell of unbearably hot, humid heat.
The monotonous routine of clanging steel cell doors is periodically pierced by the anguished shouts of mentally tortured lives waiting to be extinguished. The only semblance of civilization is kept alive by the tenuous hope for survival that clings to news of the last appeal and plotting the next appeal.
There’s a caste system on Death Row. In reality, there are three of them. About 75 condemned inmates are housed in the original area built in 1934. This relatively quiet cell block is called North-Segregation. It’s for inmates who “play well with others” and are not disciplinary problems. About 450 condemned live in East Block, a falling down, dilapidated, leaky rabbit pen built in 1927. It’s an old fashioned 5-story cage housed in a block building. The incessant din of chatter, shrieks, and metal on metal clanging is a mind-numbing, 24 hour reality—a special hell. The cells house those who have murdered their victims in the most gruesome ways. Most are violent, mentally ill behavior problems that “don’t play well with others.”
Last, and deservedly least of the three Death Rows, is the infamous, cynically named Adjustment Center. This is where the worst of the “badasses” are warehoused. They are under heavy guard and total isolation. They are “allowed” to exercise in 8 by 10-foot cages under constant supervision by armed guards. Richard Allen Davis, the man who kidnapped and murdered 12-year-old Polly Klaas in Petaluma in 1993 is housed here. He’s been assaulted and spat upon by other inmates at least three times. Not so much because he killed a child, but because most inmates blame him for the three-strikes law. Given the chance, any inmate would kill him.
Richard Ramirez, our own home-grown Satan dubbed the “Night Stalker” also resides in the Adjustment Center. This is where he receives fan mail from adoring women. He’s best known by prison officials for exposing himself to children in the prisoner’s visiting area.
But even in this twisted civilization, moral distinctions exist. In 1992, as Robert Alton Harris was led away to execution, his fellow inmates jeered him about eating the unfinished hamburgers of his young murder victims, and taunted him with cries of “Baby Killer.”
OLD AGE SEEMS TO BE THE GREATEST THREAT to life here these days. Recently, Dennis Lawley, age 69, died of natural causes. He was convicted in 1989. Frank Manuel Abilez, age 53, died also of natural causes. He was convicted of sodomizing and strangling his mother to death in 1997.
California currently hosts 722 inmates on death row. Since 1978, 76 inmates died of natural causes or suicide while 14 were executed. In that same span of years California spent $14 billion dollars maintaining these folks as inmates. Do the math. We spent $285 million dollars per execution. This does not include the expense of post-conviction prosecution and defense attorneys pegged by the ACLU at $85,000 per death-row inmate per year. There are no death row inmates wealthy enough to pay their own legal fees so California taxpayers pick up the bill. In total, the California Commission on the Fair Administration of Justice 2009 pegs the tab at $137 million. Comparatively, permanent imprisonment of all those on Death Row would cost only $11 million. It seems a mini-industry has emerged from California’s broken capital punishment system. (Ironically, suicide on death row is hard to pull off. Residents are on what would otherwise be called “suicide watch.”)
If the death sentences of 722 death-row inmates were commuted to permanent imprisonment without possibility of parole, the State of California’s annual savings would be at least $191,620,000. We would spend $126,000,000 less in annual maintenance as “general population prisoners” and another $65,620,000 less in post-conviction appeal costs.
Why without possibility of parole? The reason is to avoid parole-review farces like the recurring circus of Charles Manson and his acolytes. Because Chief Justice Rose Bird overturned the death penalty during her ten-year tenure, when Manson et al were on trial, this bloody mass murderer and his accomplices are eligible for review every few years. The gruesome nightmare gets revisited in the press, puts the families through agony all over again, and arguably glorifies Manson’s celebrity.
Bird was later removed from office by California voters—too late for the families of Sharon Tate and her unborn child, Jay Sebring, Leno and Rosemary LaBianca, Steven Parent, Abigail Folger and Wojciech Frykowski.
BECAUSE OF THE BURGEONING DEATH ROW POPULATION, California must soon build a new Death Row facility at a cost estimated well above $250 million. The cost of building new maximum security facilities for an equal number of inmates is estimated at $175 million. There’s a quick, one-time savings of $75 million. There’s also the more subtle savings in interest on the state bonds that would be created to pay for construction. These savings would go on for years, as would the lower costs of maintaining much simpler facilities. It becomes the proverbial gift that keeps on giving.
These savings wouldn’t bail California out of its current deficit nightmare, but if retained in the state prison system, the savings would stop the transfer of state prisoners to local county jails. Many counties are having their own budget problems which are exacerbated by having to accommodate scores of “extra guests” with very little extra funding.
THE CURRENT DEATH ROW POPULATION of 722 could easily merge within the existing state prisons, totaling tens of thousands of prisoners. There are similar percentages of mentally unstable inmates in both groups and all prisons. Facilities to accommodate the hardest to handle of both groups already exist within the three highest security prisons—Pelican Bay State Prison, Corcoran State Prison, and California Correctional Institute at Tehachapi. Although already over-crowded, the three prisons have a total population of slightly under 7,000. There are 30-plus more facilities to ease the burden.
California can no longer afford the luxury of pretending to keep 772 prisoners for executions that will never happen, at an expense that is almost as murky and complex as the national defense budget. It’s all at the taxpayer’s expense.
That’s why I no longer support the Death Penalty in California. For the first 45 years of my life I wasn’t swayed by moral and ethical issues set forth by different religious and advocacy groups for abolition of the ultimate punishment. I’m still not. It’s just that I can no longer afford the Death Penalty in California.
Thomas Burney graduated from Boston University in 1968 with a BS in
Journalism and entered three years of military service. After seeing how journalism was handled in Vietnam, he swore off the profession for life and gained honest work in real estate development and the oil industry. In 1978 he became an entrepreneur and retired after 25 years to small business consulting, volunteerism and leisure. This is his first political editorial since the Vietnam war ended.
PHOTOS: Elaine Ash