Former California prisons leader joins fight against death penalty


As the clock ticked past midnight and the death chamber phone refused to ring, San Quentin State Prison Warden Jeanne Woodford would calmly signal the executioners to inject a lethal dose of chemicals into the condemned man’s veins.

Reared in a Roman Catholic family, she grew up believing that only God had the right to take a life. But four times in her 30-year career in California corrections, the soft-spoken mother of five carried out executions of notorious killers, remorseful and unrepentant alike.

Woodford resigned as director of the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation four years ago, dismayed over state authorities’ clinging to policies such as the death penalty that she had concluded are wasteful, discriminatory and fail to make the public safer.


Now, as the state tries to restart the execution machinery after a five-year legal hiatus, Woodford has crossed to the other side of the contentious debate over capital punishment. On Thursday, the abolitionist nonprofit Death Penalty Focus will announce Woodford’s appointment as executive director, a new role that will see her standing on the other side of the walls of San Quentin should any of the 713 death row inmates meet his or her end at the hands of the state.

“I never was in favor of the death penalty, but my experience at San Quentin allowed me to see it from all points of view. I had a duty to carry out, and I tried to do it with professionalism,” Woodford, 56, said in explaining how she had to put her personal abhorrence of execution aside to do her job. “The death penalty serves no one. It doesn’t serve the victims. It doesn’t serve prevention. It’s truly all about retribution.”

Woodford says she sees an opportunity to get rid of the death penalty in the current quest for budgetary restraint. If the public can be educated about the true costs of capital punishment — at least $200 million a year, she says — as well as its potential for irreversible error, support for the ultimate penalty would wither, Woodford predicts. It is that prospect that has lured her from a brief retirement to the post with Death Penalty Focus from which she will lobby against the policy she once imposed.

“There comes a time when you have to ask if a penalty that is so permanent can be available in such an imperfect system,” she says of the mounting instances elsewhere in the country of death row inmates being exonerated by DNA evidence. “The only guarantee against executing the innocent is to do away with the death penalty.”

Executions were few and far between during her years at San Quentin, and Woodford focused her attention on the goal of rehabilitation, preparing those with prospects for release to live within the law once they got outside. San Quentin — its storied ocher fortress on a promontory above San Francisco Bay and nestled amid some of the most liberal communities in the country — gained a reputation as a leading progressive penal institution in the years she was there.

Built by inmates housed on a ship until the first wing opened in 1852, San Quentin was one of the first prisons to create an Alcoholics Anonymous chapter, Woodford recalls, and was able to harness the altruism and energy of volunteer counselors and teachers to augment the corrections department’s meager rehabilitation resources. In the 1980s and ‘90s, inmates earned their GEDs, college degrees and trade skills, and aspired to finish their time in the Success Dorm, the re-entry program that would prepare them for life when they got out.


But as she made her way up the ranks, Woodford became increasingly troubled by the state’s embrace of capital punishment, restored as a sentencing option in 1978, the year she arrived at San Quentin with a freshly printed degree in criminal justice from Sonoma State University. Though it would be more than a decade before the first of 13 executions was carried out, she watched with dismay as the political football of capital punishment was tossed among tough-on-crime candidates for county district attorney offices and the statehouse.

It was the third of the four executions during her tenure as warden, the 2001 lethal injection of Robert Lee Massie, that brought her to see the death penalty as a failed policy draining funds better used elsewhere. Massie, sentenced to death a second time after his first capital conviction was commuted in 1974, had been a victim of abuse in the state’s foster care system, mistreatment born of dwindling state funding and oversight that set him on a path of destruction, she said.

After 26 years at San Quentin, Woodford was tapped by Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger to serve as corrections director in 2004, a job she initially hoped would allow her to reform the system from inside. She wanted to close the revolving door of parole violators flooding the prisons for three-month terms, enough to compound overcrowding and soak up medical care but too short to get into rehabilitative programs.

“It was an incredibly expensive bus ride to nowhere,” she said of the vicious circle of petty offenses sending parolees back inside to reconnect with hardened criminals.

Her proposals for locating inmates in prisons closest to where their families lived went unheeded. Direly needed sentencing reform never happened, although, she says, the Legislature and governor are now drafting programs to cut the 70% recidivism rate, finally motivated by the need to trim the corrections budget.

“There are a lot of hard-working people in the corrections system who take the blame for so much that is out of their control,” Woodford says of the frustration that led to her resignation. “They don’t make the sentencing laws, but they are expected to carry them out.”

After each of the four executions on her watch, Woodford said she asked herself — and was asked by the media witnesses — whether the public was safer as a result.

“The answer,” she says, “is no.”