Waiting in Isolation : Punishment: The first woman on California’s Death Row in 15 years has fewer privileges than any male condemned prisoner. Some say that is typical of the unequal treatment of female inmates.


Maureen McDermott has fewer privileges, greater restrictions and is more isolated than any other condemned inmate in the California prison system.

It is not because of her behavior behind bars. She is described as a model inmate by prison authorities. It is not because of her crime. She paid a man to murder her roommate so she could collect his insurance policy, but many inmates on Death Row have committed crimes just as heinous.

McDermott is denied the basic freedoms other Death Row inmates take for granted simply because she is a woman, the first woman on Death Row in California in 15 years.

McDermott’s life on Death Row highlights the unequal treatment women inmates receive in the prison system, experts say, and draws attention to the status of condemned women, who often are left out of the capital punishment debate. American Civil Liberties Union attorneys currently are investigating the McDermott case.

The Death Row for women at Frontera bears little resemblance to the sprawling series of cellblocks at San Quentin Prison, where 297 condemned men are awaiting execution. The women’s Death Row consists of a single cell at the California Institution for Women, in a maximum security housing unit called Greystone.


McDermott, 43, a former nurse at County-USC Medical Center, is locked inside a 6-by-12-foot cell with a solid steel door almost 23 hours a day. She has no contact with other inmates, and lives a life of almost complete isolation. On the average day, she leaves her cell for about an hour, only to exercise--alone--on a small patch of blacktop behind the prison. She is allowed to leave her cell three times a week for showers.

The men on Death Row who are not disciplinary problems, however, are allowed to leave their cells from 9 a.m. to 3 p.m. They can play cards or table tennis, or just wander along the walkways and visit with other inmates. On the yard they can play basketball together, lift weights or work out on punching bags.

They have access to typewriters, and, unlike McDermott, who is separated from visitors by glass and must communicate by telephone, the men are allowed contact visits.

The men have these privileges because a number of inmates filed a lawsuit in the late 1970s, and a federal court ordered the prison to improve Death Row living conditions. But the court order, and the specific privileges mandated, apply just to the men at San Quentin, not to condemned women.

By treating McDermott differently than condemned men, the state prison system is taking a position that is grossly unfair, sexist and possibly unconstitutional, prison experts say.

“People may be appalled by her crime, and glad she’s off the streets, but that doesn’t justify locking her up like a caged animal,” said Joe Ingber, her trial attorney. “If we want to live in a fair society . . . then we should treat all of our condemned inmates fairly.”

McDermott has declined to comment, Ingber said, because her appellate attorney has advised her not to talk to the press, and because “she fears that if she ruffles any feathers she’ll be treated worse.” Ingber, who has visited McDermott several times, said she has been “terribly depressed” because of the isolation.

Prison officials at Frontera say it would be too expensive and too time-consuming for their staff to provide McDermott with the same amenities the men have at San Quentin.

“It has nothing to do with sexism; it’s a matter of finance,” said Associate Warden Ross Dykes. “Because there are so many more condemned male inmates, San Quentin can provide more facilities and programs.”

But Craig Haney, a professor of psychology at UC Santa Cruz who has written extensively about prison conditions, said he “comes to the exact opposite conclusion as the prison.” Because there is only one condemned woman, he said, it should be easier for prison officials to improve living conditions.

Haney contends that the Department of Corrections was unprepared to house McDermott. As a result, when McDermott arrived at Frontera, she was sent to Greystone, a 100-cell security housing unit designed for violent, abusive inmates. Because many of these women have assaulted staff or other prisoners, or sold narcotics while in prison, they are kept under highly restrictive “lock-down” conditions.

“Lumping together people with behavior problems with Death Row inmates--who may be model prisoners--is poor correctional policy,” Haney said. “The two groups have very different needs and pressures.”

While the other inmates may serve comparatively short terms in this prison-within-a-prison, a Death Row inmate could be there for years, or even decades, said Rebecca Jurado, an ACLU attorney in Los Angeles. Keeping women under “oppressive confinement,” when men at San Quentin have much better living conditions, is unconstitutional, she said.

“The bottom line,” she said, “is condemned men in California are treated better than condemned women.”

It has been easy for the Department of Corrections to overlook McDermott, Haney said, but eventually she will be joined by others, including Cynthia Coffman, who was sentenced to death last summer along with her boyfriend for torturing, raping and murdering a Redlands woman. Coffman would be on Death Row now, but she is awaiting a second murder trial in Santa Ana.

These women will be moved to another Death Row this spring, at the new women’s prison in Madera. But this Death Row also will be in a maximum-security housing unit designed for problem inmates, a unit with conditions almost identical to Greystone, prison officials said.

At one time, Frontera had a separate facility for condemned inmates with its own cellblock, exercise yard, shower, and visiting room. It was known as “Manson Manor,” because three Manson family members--along with two other convicted murderers--were housed there in the early 1970s. When the California Supreme Court declared the death penalty unconstitutional, the facility was converted into housing for mainline prisoners. But since 1977, when the death penalty was reinstated in California, Frontera has been so crowded, prison officials said, it has not been practical to reserve a cellblock just for Death Row.

Condemned women are the forgotten variable in the capital punishment debate, said Victor Streib, a law professor at Cleveland State University and an expert on women and capital punishment. Politicians and prosecutors, he said, usually try to avoid talking about women when advocating the death penalty.

“You’re not going to get much political mileage out of saying: ‘Let’s fry a few of these women,’ ” Streib said. “This doesn’t fit the get-tough-on-crime sloganeering. When politicians talk about the death penalty, and someone asks them about women, they get embarrassed . . . they try to avoid the subject.”

Because condemned women often are ignored, critics say, it is easy to also ignore their living conditions. While the number of men who have received the death penalty has increased during the past decade, capital convictions for women throughout the country have remained about the same--usually fewer than six per year. There are only 31 condemned women in the United States, as opposed to more than 2,400 condemned men, so they are less visible and have fewer advocates.

The last woman executed in the United States--in 1984--was Margie Velma Barfield, who poisoned her fiance in North Carolina. That had been the first execution of a woman in 22 years, since Elizabeth Duncan, who hired two men to kill her daughter-in-law, was executed at San Quentin.

Maureen McDermott hired an orderly at County-USC Medical Center to kill her roommate so she could collect a $100,000 mortgage insurance policy on the Van Nuys home they co-owned. The orderly testified at the trial that McDermott wanted him to mutilate the roommate’s body in the hopes that police would wrongly conclude it was a homosexual crime of passion. He stabbed the roommate 44 times and cut off his penis.

Before McDermott was sent to Death Row, she spent almost five years at Sybil Brand Institute in East Los Angeles, where she used her nursing training to save the life of a prisoner choking on an apple, and another time alerted deputies to an inmate’s suicide attempt, said Ingber, her trial attorney. Because she has never been a discipline problem, he said, McDermott should be allowed to mingle with other prisoners to lessen her extreme isolation.

“We can’t allow her mingling with mainline prisoners,” said Associate Warden Dykes. “We have taken a conservative approach . . . but that’s because we consider any condemned person the highest possible escape risk. They have nothing to lose.”

McDermott is not the only woman prisoner with worse living conditions than men, however. Unequal treatment permeates the system, critics say. Correctional officials throughout the country have argued that the number of females in the general prison population is so small that it is not economically feasible to provide programs--such as job training and recreational facilities--comparable to the men’s prisons.

In the past, Folsom and San Quentin received much attention for their violent, overcrowded conditions. But the most overcrowded prison in the state is the women’s institution at Frontera, which is at more than 200% capacity.

A state legislative committee report last year called the prison the worst in the state for drug abuse and detailed numerous other problems. The scathing report described security breakdowns, filthy commissary conditions and mistreatment of pregnant inmates.