A revealing look at California’s death row

A corrections officer stands guard at the entrance to one of four inmate housing units that hold nearly 700 condemned men at San Quentin State Prison. All are full. The prison is about to open a fifth cell block for those sentenced to death.

A corrections officer stands guard at the entrance to one of four inmate housing units that hold nearly 700 condemned men at San Quentin State Prison. All are full. The prison is about to open a fifth cell block for those sentenced to death.

(Mark Boster / Los Angeles Times)

California’s crowded death row is as defined by architecture as it is the legal battles that have blocked executions since 2006.

The original men's death row, the fourth floor of the north cell block at San Quentin State Prison, filled up shortly after the death penalty was restored in 1978.

Since then, more than 900 people have been sentenced to death but only 13 have been executed by the state. The majority of the 699 condemned men currently housed at San Quentin are in what started as overflow housing in East Block. They live, eat and sleep in two rows of open-front cells, stacked five stories high like containers in the hold of a cargo ship.

A look inside East Block at San Quentin State Prison, where condemned inmates are housed.

The granite structure is straight out of 1930, the year it was built. The cavern is filled with sound: metal echoing off stone, the drone of large air circulation systems, and random shouts drifting down from above. Until a cleanup that took two decades of federal oversight and didn't end until 2009, the tiers were home to pigeons, encrusted with their droppings, leaking sewer water and rust.

It is now clean but monochromatic. The few points of color: red on the U.S. flag hanging in the rafters, and yellow metal boxes at the end of each tier containing crescent-shaped knives for guards to cut down inmates who try to hang themselves. Until recently, California led the nation in suicides of the condemned.

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A visitor looking up sees the exposed silver insulation of the high ceiling, coils of concertina wire and armed guards perched on catwalks, rifles cradled.

But no inmates.

"It looks empty," a perplexed reporter said when California agreed in late December to the first media tour of death row in a decade.

"Oh, they're in there," an officer replied.

'This is a harsh place mentally...'

Condemned inmate Wayne A. Ford says he never leaves his cell, bathing in the sink attached to his toilet. (Mark Boster / Los Angeles Times)

The average death penalty appeal in California takes 25 years or more. There is currently no court-sanctioned execution protocol, though a single-drug method is proposed for public comment. The process of regulatory review and then legal challenge is expected to take years.

Meanwhile, opposing sides are circulating competing petitions that would ask state voters in 2016 to ban capital punishment or speed up executions. Inmates on death row were not all that familiar with the details of either.

Albert Jones, 51, was convicted in 1996 for the 1993 stabbing deaths of an elderly Riverside couple. Twenty-two years after the crime, he said, he is still in the early stages of appeal. Jones busies himself with writing and religious studies.

He concedes, "This is a harsh place mentally. You wake up and know the process every day, the guards and other individuals, because you know, they're mad too."

Wheelchairs line the wall of the tier. Until last year, the bottom tier cells also housed the most mentally ill of those on death row, including psychotic inmates unaware of their surroundings. Under a federal judge's order they are now housed on the fourth floor of a prison medical building. Forensic psychiatrist Dr. Paul Burton said the nation's first death row psychiatric ward now has only a single empty cell.

As he spoke, a prisoner with tousled hair and dark circles around the eyes of his confused face paced quickly back and forth before the window of his cell.

A pair of guards stepped in front to block the view.

'I leave my feelings at the gate...'

Nearly two dozen media members wait to enter death row in the first major tour in two decades. (Mark Boster / Los Angeles Times)

Most prison officers stood by, watching silently as the pack of reporters moved up and down before locked doors, seeking inmates who would talk. A few officers bantered with the prisoners, sharing small jokes.

"There's a camaraderie you have with the guys," said Lt. Sam Robinson, a former death row guard who is now the public information officer for San Quentin.

But not friendship.

"I know from my perspective, that if a guy gets out of a cell, if he has the opportunity, he may take my life," Robinson said. "... I don't think you take it personal. It's just the place where we work."

Officer S. Salais has spent 10 years as a San Quentin guard, working his way to the prison's highest security unit, the Adjustment Center, where inmates are held in isolation for discipline or safety reasons. Before solid cell doors were added to protect guards from urine and feces, it was violent duty.

Even today, visitors must wear spit shields and stab-proof vests. Yet Salais said the segregated unit "is about as stressful as you make it."

"Me, personally, I leave my personal feelings at the gate, regardless of how I feel on why they are here, or not," he said. "And when I leave here, I leave all my stress here, if I have any. I don't take it home with me."

A look inside the exercise yard in the Adjustment Center at San Quentin Prison.

All but four of the 85 inmates in the Adjustment Center are condemned. Some had spent decades in isolation enhanced by the solid doors. As part of a class-action settlement last year, California has returned most of the condemned inmates held for decades in solitary confinement to East Block.

A few remain behind.

Paul Tuilaepa, 50, with the short, stocky build of a professional wrestler, said he has spent 28 years in isolation. Tuilaepa was condemned for killing a man and shooting three others during a robbery at a Long Beach bar in 1986. His history at San Quentin includes a breakout attempt in 2000, and attacks on officers -- the last one eight years ago. His threat to officers is considered such that he must wear leg irons when not locked in his cell or a kennel-sized exercise cage. He argued he should return to East Block.

"They don't care what you do, you can kill another inmate," Tuilaepa said, "but if you mess with them [the officers], it becomes personal."

'I expect to go to heaven...'

Condemned inmate Steve Livaditis, on the rooftop yard of North Seg, speaks to reporters while three others turn their backs to avoid photographers. (Mark Boster / Los Angeles Times)

Steve Livaditis, 51, was sent to death row for killing three people in a Rodeo Drive jewelry store in 1989. He pleaded guilty and said he believes in the death penalty, including for his crime. If there is cruelty, Livaditis said, it is the 20 to 30 years it takes for condemned inmates in California to have their legal appeals fully heard. His are nearly over.

"If they take me downstairs and execute me, I will assume it is God's will," Livaditis said, standing on the rooftop exercise yard of North Seg, the small fourth-floor tier block that had been the original death row. It currently holds only so-called Grade A condemned inmates who have been without a prison infraction at least five years. On North Seg, inmates can walk about the open tier, and walk themselves to the yard. The waiting list to get in is decades long.

Livaditis, in a sweat shirt and stocking cap, took a break from shooting basketball in the brisk air coming off San Francisco Bay.

He described the peace he found 26 years ago, while in jail, "by accepting Jesus Christ as my lord and savior. ... I expect to go to heaven when I die. By the grace of God."

Like most inmates who spoke, he did not expect families of murder victims to willingly let go of capital punishment. "Not as long as the crimes, these headline crimes, keep happening," he said, referring to murders by other death row compatriots as Richard Allen Davis, the slayer of 12-year-old Polly Klaas.

"I can understand why victims would feel the way they feel, from a vengeance standpoint," said Charles E. Crawford, condemned for the 2002 killings of two burglary accomplices during a meth binge. Crawford says hope should be held out for rehabilitation, even among the condemned.

Of the two men executed since Crawford came to San Quentin, he knew one: Stanley "Tookie" Williams, a founder of the Crips gang who later was commended by then-President George W. Bush for his anti-gang advocacy "and still they felt it was OK to execute him."

An officer on the catwalk on East Block. (Nark Boster / Los Angeles Times)

No pictures allowed

Corrections staff would not permit photographs within the death chamber, built in 2008 and never used. They did not know why state regulations prohibit images of the antiseptic room, housed in a one-story addition not far from East Block.

Beside the single locked entrance is a tall wood lectern, the sort used in funeral parlors for guests to sign the remembrance book.

In the narrow open space is a rope stand like those used to keep customers in line at banks. Behind that are 12 wood chairs upholstered in black, lined up to face a bank of four large panes of glass. On the other side is an intensely bright but virtually empty room, illuminating a garishly green gurney positioned directly beneath a large institutional clock.

Holes in the wall behind lead to the room in which unseen persons, looking through one-way glass, would inject lethal drugs into long IV lines attached to the prisoner. There are two holes for an IV line to run to each arm.

Just in case.

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