California’s death row, the largest in the Western Hemisphere, will be dismantled.
Gov. Gavin Newsom announced last week that a two-year-old pilot program will be expanded, resulting in the transfer of most if not all, of the 694 men and women currently on death row to lower-level security prisons throughout the state. The goal, a spokesperson for the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation told the Associated Press, is to “repurpose and transform the current housing units [at San Quentin Prison] into something innovative and anchored in rehabilitation.”
Until now, the program has been voluntary, and there are reports that many of those who opted in don’t regret their decision. Donna Larsen, whose son is on death row, has been in touch with seven of those who were transferred, and said all, except one woman who didn’t volunteer but was transferred anyway, are glad they moved.
“They are excited that they can see sunsets and sunrises from their cells,” she says. “One told me how happy he was to be able to ‘put his toes in the grass’ again. They can walk without handcuff or shackles, without guards escorting them. They’re getting three hot meals a day. Some of them have jobs. Some are eligible for programs and classes.”
Still, Larsen is “adamantly” opposed to the plan if it’s a mandatory transfer for everyone.
Safety, medical issues, mental health issues, and uprooting men and women who have been on death row for decades, in single cells, are the main concerns for opponents.
“As a mother I’ve very, very frightened for my son,” who “hates the idea,” she says. “Most of the mothers are apprehensive.” She notes that she, like so many family members of the imprisoned, moved to northern California to be closer to San Quentin. All but one of the prisons designated as transfer destinations is in southern California, which means Larsen and many of the others will either have to move again, or travel long distances to visit.
“Perception of death row from those on the inside is very different from those on the outside,” DPF President Mike Farrell points out. “Some of these men and women have been on the row for decades, in a single cell, and to upend what is essentially the only “home” they’ve had and put them in a cell with one or more other prisoners in a different prison, possibly far away from long-established support networks, could have serious ramifications.
“CDCR says it plans to take into consideration the safety of those being transferred, and is aware that two of the main issues are the health of the prisoners and/or how high-profile they are, but we’d like to know what health issues will be considered, and how they will define ‘high-profile,’” Farrell says.
But Kevin Cooper, who has been on death row for almost 37 years, says, “This is long overdue. I applaud Gov. Newsom for what he’s doing. The time has come for this thing to end.” He says while it doesn’t change the fact they will still be under sentence of death, it’s important to de-stigmatize death row and all that it signifies.
“In 1619, when the first Africans came here as enslaved people they were under the threat of death. Their descendants, African-Americans, have lived in this county under the threat of death since that time. To me, after reading all the history books I’ve read, I can honestly say there’s never been a time for African-Americans where they have not been living under the threat of death whether from individuals, or the state or federal government. As Dr. Martin Luther King said, ‘The greatest purveyor of violence in the world is my own government.’ That violence also includes capital punishment. The time has come to bring this state-sanctioned violence in the state of California to an end.
“Everybody has their own reasons for wanting to leave or stay. I want to stay because of the innocence investigation into my case that will hopefully be over before I’m moved somewhere. I would like to walk off this death row as I walked onto it in 1985. All plantations are the same. If I leave here and go to another prison I may have room to walk around, but I’ll still be locked up. I’d like to walk out of here under my own power.”