Executions Make Prison Hard for Villagers to Ignore
This may be the year when what goes on inside California’s most notorious prison finally intrudes on the carefully shielded lives of the people who live just outside.
They number about 45, refugees from harried city life and sterile suburbia, writers, teachers and artists who discovered tranquillity and waterfront living in the most unlikely of spots--the turn of the century cottages on the quiet road to the west gate of San Quentin prison.
But with one execution this week, another planned in August and perhaps a dozen more to be scheduled over the next year, the imposing complex down the street is becoming increasingly difficult for the people of Point San Quentin Village to ignore.
“I’ve never been in there, I just keep it as another world. . . . I just want to live my life,” said Frances Hayden, 32, who has lived in a sunny cottage steps from the prison gate for more than three years. Like many of her neighbors, Hayden loves the water and nature and revels in the sound of the bay lapping at the foundations of her house, at the sunsets, the ferry ride to her job in San Francisco, the bargain she and her husband got on their home.
The fact that her dream home happened to have the prison and its death chamber as a neighbor is something Hayden chooses on most days to ignore.
“It’s like opening Pandora’s Box. As long as the executions happen so infrequently, you really don’t have to open it up,” Hayden said.
Keeping that box closed is getting harder.
When your street turns into a protest rally, when your children go to sleep to the sound of people sobbing because a convict is meeting his death, that box creaks open.
When police in riot gear swarm on the corner, buzz on motorcycles back and forth, fly in helicopters overhead, all under the glare of television lights, the box opens even wider.
And when there are 508 men and women on death row and about 30 more being condemned to die each year, paradise starts looking a little worn around the edges.
“There was no death penalty when I bought here. I got a great deal,” schoolteacher David Barni said. “The only things my wife and I have worried about are the normal problems of living in an isolated place--how to get the kids to school and stuff.”
But Barni, who lives in a Victorian-era house with a view of the water, a picket fence he built himself and flowers bursting from every spare patch of ground, says that he worries now.
“My main concern is not to have the kids see the weird stuff that happens out here when they execute someone,” he said. “I mean, a guy was sitting there the last time with a noose in his hand. I think that’s kind of weird for kids to see, don’t you?”
That sort of image is the last thing the people in the village want.
Most wrinkled their noses a little at the thought of living so close to a prison when they first thought about living here. But they got over it quickly as they fell in love with the homes, which were originally constructed for prison personnel when San Quentin was built in 1852.
The unincorporated village near San Raphael looks out over the Richmond-San Rafael Bridge and a quiet San Francisco Bay cove. A sign at the edge of the Marin County enclave doesn’t mention that a prison is at the end of the road. It states the community’s everyday concern: “Please drive carefully. Children at Play.”
“See, I don’t like to tell people. You’ll never see these places in the paper. You have to know someone who knows it’s here,” said Belinda Blair, who sings with a San Francisco rock band and rents a tiny cottage with her boyfriend in the village.
“It’s a hometown feeling,” she said. “But if they step up the executions, yes, that could change things.”
Already the executions have wrought some unwanted changes.
There is the pass that residents must carry on the day an execution is planned to get past the barricades to restrict protesters and the media.
There are the television crews who are willing to pay exorbitant fees to rent rooftops and driveways.
There is the possibility, never realized, that a protest could turn seriously violent.
On Monday, though, protesters were civil. The noisiest thing they did was to sing “Amazing Grace,” and they cleaned up carefully before they left.
“There are issues in this world that are more important than our own little lives. And if we can’t make some concessions, I don’t know what kind of people we are,” said John Kernan, who has lived in the village for about a year.
“I’m willing to put up with a little inconvenience when there are people out there who feel so strongly either way.”