Crowded, Tedious : Death Row: A Place for Fear to Grow

Times Staff Writer

On occasion, when Luis Rodriguez walks past some of his neighbors’ “houses,” he imagines that skeletons are sitting inside, staring back at him.

“It’s kind of like you’re dead. You just haven’t realized it yet,” said Rodriguez, a muscular man of 33, who for the last eight years has lived on California’s Death Row.

Nearly all of this state’s 259 “condemned” live in East Block, California State Prison at San Quentin. It is a hangar-like structure, five tiers high, 60 cells to a tier, 70 years old. It is the nation’s third-largest Death Row, behind Texas and Florida, and it is growing like a boom town.


Everything about Death Row is unprecedented. The population has never been so large. Prisoners have never stayed so long. Half have been there five years or longer, 15 have been there since 1979. California has never gone so long, 22 years, without an execution.

It can be violent. More often it is tedious. It is also becoming more bleak for the inmates. The state Supreme Court led by conservative Chief Justice Malcolm M. Lucas regularly upholds death sentences. Concerned that the affirmances are making the condemned men more desperate, San Quentin officials are tightening security in the already maximum-security East Block.

“You don’t drop your vigilance on a group like that,” said Daniel Vasquez, a tough, stocky 24-year veteran of the prison system who worked his way from a tier officer to become warden here in 1983. “Even though it (an execution) is still a faraway concept, the reality is that they are condemned to death.”

In conducting more than 30 interviews and examining dozens of Death Row court documents, another reality stood just as forcefully: Death Row is a place of fear.

Loss of Privileges Feared

Wives of condemned men complained about strict visiting room rules and rude officers, but would not speak publicly for fear that their husbands would lose privileges.

Few prisoners would consent to interviews. They fear that any article about life on the row would only inflame passions about capital punishment and hurt their chances of winning retrials on appeal. One prisoner who agreed to an interview told of fears that gnaw at him.


“I don’t even eat my food until my neighbors have started biting into theirs,” said Robert Bloom, as concerned about what some of the officers might do to him as he is about his enemies among fellow inmates. “ . . . Even then, I sit there and I smell it, and if anything smells wrong, I won’t touch it.”

Officers, who wear green uniforms, call themselves the Greens. Prisoners, who must wear blue shirts and blue jeans, are called the Blues. Greens talk about sports or some other innocuous topic with the Blues. But they never reveal anything personal for fear that prisoners could somehow use it against them. One veteran officer said he does not so much as register to vote because he worries that prisoners will get his address from the public record.

Inmates occasionally do attack officers, generally with prison-made blades, or by tossing hot water or whatever else is at hand. But for the most part, the Greens and Blues coexist.

The men spend a minimum of 20 hours a day in what most call their houses, cells that are 10 1/2 feet long, 4 3/4 feet wide and have concrete walls 10 inches thick. To pass the time, they stare at television, comb law books, or run scams hoping to gain an edge and make their lives easier.

3 Suicides This Year

Some develop powerful muscles by lifting weights during four hours a day on the exercise yard, or by doing endless push-ups in their cells. Prisoners with cells that front one of the long, narrow and unwashed windows can gaze upon San Francisco Bay.

Three have killed themselves in the last year. Others go crazy waiting for a death by lethal gas that will come who knows when. One thing they have is time. A dozen years after California reinstated the death penalty, few if any of them are going anywhere any time soon. Many are convinced they will never leave alive.


“They don’t know where it’s going to end, but they know they’re never going to get out. You can see it in them,” said Rodriguez, 33, who hopes one day to walk away free. A Superior Court judge has overturned his conviction for the murders of two California Highway Patrol officers in 1980, though he will remain on Death Row pending an appeal by the attorney general.

The furor in California over the death penalty has abated 2 1/2 years after voters affirmed their strong support of capital punishment by ousting liberal Chief Justice Rose Elizabeth Bird and two other justices. The liberals’ conservative replacements have upheld 53 death sentences since taking over.

Prisoners, prosecutors and prison officials agree that executions are coming at some point. Some death penalty experts predict that executions will become routine in time. But with 1989 more than half over, chances are another year will pass without a state-sanctioned killing in California.

Judges and juries, meanwhile, will sentence as many as 40 more people to death this year. Prison officials expect the condemned population to exceed 300 by next year. Whether or not an execution takes place, Death Row will consume an ever-increasing amount of Department of Corrections dollars, cell space and time.

With the unanticipated growth in the condemned population, life on Death Row has clearly undergone noticeable changes.

Prisoners, for example, no longer are allowed to mill about inside their cellblock as they did in the first years after California reinstated capital punishment. Their numbers would make supervision impossible. Officers say they often are kept running from the time their shift begins.


Rules Govern Lives

“There are days when I don’t even have time to sit down,” said one young officer, speaking on the condition that he not be identified.

From first morning light, both the jailers and the jailed are governed by rules. The condemned are segregated from the 2,800 other prisoners at San Quentin, so they eat in their Death Row cells. Food arrives on carts. Officers will not serve breakfast until prisoners turn on their lights. In turn, officers in charge of the carts have thermometers and must check to see that food arrives at acceptable temperatures.

Detailed records of food temperatures are kept and periodically presented to Robert Riggs, a lawyer appointed four years ago by a federal judge to oversee a 1980 settlement of a suit over Death Row conditions.

Those records show, for example, that fried eggs have gotten to the cells at an unacceptable 49 degrees. If the food arrives cold too often, lawyers for the prisoners can ask that Riggs hold the state in contempt of court.

Preparation for exercise starts at 8:15 a.m.

One by one, each prisoner strips. An officer stands outside the locked cell and directs him through a thorough search, body cavities included. The inmate extends his arms behind his back, allowing the officer to reach into the cell to apply handcuffs. A gunnery officer with a semiautomatic rifle watches from a catwalk set off from the cells.

Once the double locks on the cell door are released, the prisoner, dressed in underpants, socks and shoes, is escorted by two officers to a holding cell. There, the clothes that he will wear to the exercise yard are searched. After a final check with a metal detector, the prisoner is let onto an exercise yard.


Life in the Yard

On the yard, prisoners have weights, punching bags and basketballs. Some exercise in groups, or play dominoes, checkers, cards or chess. The prison tries to separate them from their enemies on six separate yards. But with 50 or more men on yards 32 feet by 42 feet, fights break out. Officers occasionally fire warning shots to break them up. If the fight doesn’t stop, officers can shoot at the inmates.

In prison, attacks can come for “nothing, for nothing at all,” Rodriguez said. With muscles of a man who can bench-press 360 pounds and a good share of prison smarts, Rodriguez is not one to cower in the safety of his cell. But he also has scars on his back and shoulder from a stabbing in 1984. He also said he was wounded by fire from an officer’s gun.

Bloom, 25, is short, pale and looks anything but intimidating. Nonetheless, he talks toughly about how he fought back when he was jumped, stabbed with a blade and pummeled with an exercise weight in 1986. He blames the attack on “Nazi” officers who failed to protect him, and on inmates who harass him because he’s Jewish--”and proud of it.”

“They don’t want me wearing my yarmulke in the yard,” said Bloom, on the row for the 1982 murders of his father, stepmother and stepsister in their Sun Valley home.

“They wasn’t even man enough to come at me one on one,” Bloom said of his attackers. “Two watching for the police, and then two of them had to jump on me at once. . . . The weights came crashing down on my head, and then a knife in the back, which is a typical Nazi move.”

Another Search

Officers say--and Bloom’s pallor confirms--that these days he spends most of his time in his cell, rarely venturing to the exercise yard.


The return trip from the exercise yard begins at 12:45 p.m. After a search, inmates, one at a time, are escorted back to their cells, where they remain until exercise time the next day.

Some cells are squalid. One inmate stores bag lunches under his bed for weeks at a time. Officers can issue disciplinary citations to inmates for messy cells, but say they don’t have time to fill out the paper work. Besides, most prisoners keep their “houses” tidy.

“Everything has got to be perfect. You can walk into their cells, and they come back from their shower and say, ‘You were in here.’ Even if you don’t touch nothing, they know you were in there,” said an East Block officer.

Back when the population was in double digits, prisoners could spend their days roaming the tier of the original Death Row, the top floor of North Block, called North Segregation. But the old Death Row, intended for a maximum of 47 inmates, long since has been outgrown.

Prison officials say the design of East Block, with walkways 300 feet long and less than five feet wide, precludes out-of-cell time within the cellblock. The cost of rebuilding the aged structure to allow for more time out of cells could be $100 million, officials say.

‘Inmates Were Assaulted’

Cost is one concern. Control is another. When prisoners could roam the floor of North Segregation, weaker ones “were subjected to homosexual acts,” Lt. Melford Hamilton, a supervisor on the row, told Riggs earlier this year, justifying the prison’s refusal to grant prisoners more time out of their cells. “Inmates were assaulted. And because of . . . the way the tier was designed, it was able to be covered up and staff would not discover it for weeks,” Hamilton said.


Though alone in their cells now, prisoners still manage to communicate, often by unreeling their “fish lines.” Using bars of soap as a weight and torn bed sheets as a line, they are able to fling messages or items of value to the cells of their friends.

“They got it so they can get something from (Tier) Five all the way down to One. They can get something from one end of the tier to the other one, through a gap (at the bottom of their cell door) that isn’t any bigger than that,” a veteran officer said, holding his hands inches apart.

Sometimes, after the 49ers’ victory in the last Super Bowl, for example, the morning shift arrives to find there was heavy drinking the night before. Although it is against the rules, prisoners make their own booze. One way is to pick the raisins out of a Danish and let them age a few days.

To celebrate July 4, a well-placed stomp on a milk carton is an ideal substitute for a firecracker. The pop echoes like a gunshot. Such sounds make officers nervous.

Inmates are allowed to store coffee, smoked oysters, chocolate chip cookies and other food in their cells. They may subscribe to almost any magazine, though the prison did censor a recent issue of Hustler with an article by a disgruntled ex-officer who derided San Quentin.

Prisoners can buy color television sets with maximum 13-inch screens. The state, believing that television is an effective tool for control, provides black-and-white sets free, and free cable.


Officer Shooting Cheered

An officer recalled how the prisoners cheered at the scene in “Robocop” in which the cop was shot repeatedly. “It didn’t seem appropriate,” he said.

If anything, East Block officers believe prisoners should have less than they get. Available to Death Row inmates, but not to mainline prisoners, are electric typewriters with memories, if they can afford them, and telephones wheeled to their cells, one officer noted bitterly.

“They might have been a homeless tramp on the streets (who) murdered someone,” the officer said. “Now he’s living better than he ever was. He gets three meals a day, roof over his head, medical and dental care. His shirt gets ripped, you get him a new one. His shoes wear out, he gets a new pair.”

To pass the time in their cells, many prisoners take up painting or crafts. They may sell their work and keep the proceeds. Portraits of Magic Johnson, Michael Jackson and other famous entertainers painted by Kevin Cooper, 31, on the row since 1985 for the murders of four people in Chino, hang in a public gift shop just outside San Quentin’s main gate.

Another Death Row artist is Theodore Frank, 54, a child molester locked up since 1980 for the torture-murder of 2-year-old Amy Sue Sietz, whom he kidnaped in Camarillo. In one of the stranger aspects of life on the row, outsiders have sent pictures of their children to Frank. He paints portraits of them and sends them back.

Frank, who once studied to become a Trappist monk, also is among the prisoners who has turned to God since arriving on the row. But “it’s rather difficult” for inmates to practice religion, Harry Howard, a retired chaplain at San Quentin, testified at Frank’s 1987 retrial, in which he was resentenced to death.


Religion for the ‘Weak’

“It’s not the thing to do,” Howard said. “Inmates and even staff tend to belittle that experience and often see it as an experience of the weak, the persons who can’t hold their own.”

Condemned prisoners who have turned to God complain about being denied the privilege of worshiping in the prison chapel. Contending that a pastor might be taken hostage, San Quentin requires that chaplains be kept separate from condemned worshipers by bars.

On the old Death Row, chaplains held services for groups of three or four men who were locked in a shower. Now, services are held on exercise yards, and pastors stand on the opposite side of the chain-link fence from the prisoners.

Many other prisoners find solace in lawbooks, spending their days searching for cases to help in their appeals. When they’re not researching criminal law, the jailhouse lawyers focus their attention on prison conditions.

One of the most litigious is Rodney Alcala, 45, among the few condemned inmates who has a college education. Alcala, who has been on the row since June, 1980, for the murder of a 12-year-old girl in Huntington Beach, began a recent writ by declaring that condemned prisoners were suffering a “denial of same medical care available to general population.”

Then, in 21 immaculately typed pages replete with scholarly references to buttress his claim, Alcala asked a Marin County Superior Court judge to find that he had a constitutional right to dental floss.


The judge turned him down.

The prison had stopped giving floss to Death Row prisoners, contending that, together with toothpaste or some other abrasive, it could be used like a saw to cut the steel meshing and bars on the cells.

Rules Defended

Sgt. Vernell Crittendon justified the denial of other items to some or all Death Row prisoners, testifying before Riggs that the cord on an electric razor and ground-up matches can be fashioned into a bomb.

Fastened together, belts could be used to scale a wall, Crittendon said. Non-dairy creamer burns like napalm. One brand of disposable lighter has a part that is a Z-shaped piece of stainless steel. Members of the Aryan Brotherhood once started cutting cell bars with the small pieces of steel.

Lawyers for the Prison Law Office, which represents prisoners in litigation over conditions, argue that San Quentin has overstated security threats on the row.

The lawyers seek to force the prison to treat Death Row prisoners the same as it treats other inmates and are asking Riggs to recommend that San Quentin provide the men with such items as non-dairy creamer and dental floss.

“The gas chamber is staring them in the face. It keeps them from misbehaving,” Prison Law Office Director Donald Specter said. He maintained that the condemned cause fewer problems than other prisoners because their prison records could be used against them in any retrial. “The consequences of a misdeed are much greater.”


Condemned inmates who do create problems are placed on Grade B status. Grade B inmates get only 10 hours a week of exercise, rather than the 29 hours given to Grade A inmates, and are denied such items as razors, mirrors and telephones.

‘Hard-Core Convict’

An almost perpetual Grade B prisoner is Billy Ray Hamilton, 39. He has been on the row since October, 1981, for a triple murder the year before to silence a witness who testified against a friend, Clarence R. Allen, 59, who also is on the row. The two have little contact, though Allen sometimes yells up to Hamilton’s third-tier cell, asking if he needs anything, an officer said.

“Everyone wants to be Billy Ray’s friend . . . maybe because he’s so notorious,” the officer said.

“He’s a hard-core convict, doesn’t ask for anything, doesn’t expect anything,” the officer said. “You tell him no, he accepts it. He doesn’t whimper or cry. . . . He’s not one to lay in bed and sleep. He’s up and about the best he can in that little cell. He doesn’t have his TV on. He doesn’t want to vegetate. He’ll exercise, run in place, do push-ups.”

Between the Grade A and B inmates are the “walk-alones.” They are the serial killers, child murderers and informants who would be attacked if they mingled with other prisoners.

“They’re more or less the sissies of the group,” an officer said. “They’re the criers. If they don’t get what they want, it’s 602 time, you know, appeal time.”


At the far psychological fringe of Death Row are men who, if they weren’t crazy when they arrived, have slipped since their arrival. Some are shut-ins and never venture out to the exercise yard. Others are screamers and chant long into the night.

Ronald Fuller, 35, was a particularly troubled inmate. On the row since February, 1983, for killing a cab driver in Culver City, Fuller stayed in his cell virtually all the time, becoming so pale that “you could see the blood coursing through his veins,” an officer said.

Authorities Warned

Fuller’s lawyer and his mother repeatedly warned prison authorities that he was suicidal. At least twice, when he fell deep into insanity, authorities moved him to the California Medical Facility at Vacaville for observation.

Back at San Quentin and in an apparent flash of awareness in March, Fuller wrote a two-page letter to his mother. In it, he expressed sorrow for the pain he caused her, professed his love for her and told of his bleak existence.

“Ever since my difficulties began,” he wrote, “. . . I have steadily declined. . . .

“My difficulties returning again and losing control (are) of great concern to me. . . . Most troublesome of all to me is that I face the rest of my life in prison.”

On March 24, Fuller tied a torn bedsheet to a cell bar and hanged himself. A month earlier, his lawyer, Robert Bryan, had won a court order for a hearing to test Fuller’s competency, and was preparing for it when Fuller killed himself. Fuller was the seventh Death Row inmate to commit suicide, the third in the last 12 months.


“These men get very depressed. They feel very little self-worth,” said Dan Smith, a minister, who with his wife, Josie, periodically drives three hours from his home in Fresno to visit 16 condemned men at San Quentin, out of a Christian belief that they all “are God’s creatures.”

Prison Marriages

For most of them, the Smiths are their only visitors.

Although few friends or relatives visit men on the row, some have married since arriving. Prisoners’ advocacy groups provided the names to female volunteers, who started corresponding, then visiting. The relationships may be unusual, but two of the women interviewed were married before and say what they have now is better.

“We communicate without sex, without a home,” one of the women said.

Officials say they encourage visits. But wives complain of mistreatment and rudeness by prison officials and say that rules are applied inconsistently. During their visits, the women must walk through a metal detector. Sometimes, they are patted down. They must comply with a dress code by not wearing overly revealing clothing. They may give their husbands a hug and kiss upon arriving, and the same upon leaving.

“They (the officers) have the upper hand and they’re shoving it in our faces,” one woman said after a Sunday visit. “. . . I was raised to respect law and order. I’ve never been treated like I’ve been treated at San Quentin.”

Before a woman can wed a condemned man, she must write a letter to the prison detailing the crime for which her fiance was convicted. Still, the women insist that their husbands are not guilty of the crimes.

“I’m prepared to go on with what I’m doing if they should execute (him),” said a wife who spends much of her time attempting to exonerate her husband. “But I also have a bottle of wine and a jar of spaghetti sauce for our first dinner.”