focus on: san quentin

i would like to, when i have time, put together fact sheets of purely objective data regarding death rows around the united states of america. what better place to start than san quentin being as it was most recently the focus of a media frenzy surrounding the execution of stanley “tookie” williams.

san quentin holds california’s only death row. it was built to hold only 554 prisoners, but currently holds 647. well, i suppose 646 now, less tookie.

215 men met their end on san quentin’s death row by hanging.

from rotten.com: san quentin: The first gas chamber execution was carried out in 1938. The view from the gas chamber is the last sight a condemned man sees in life. The chamber at San Quentin is kept in the basement and is simply a large green box. Six feet across, eight feet high with a 30 foot chimney to exhale gas.

Gassing is painful and dangerous, not just to the victim but to the staff and witnesses as well. A gas chamber must be well maintained to avoid leaking gas. Death by hydrogen cyanide gas (2 NaCn + H2SO4 = 2 HCN + Na2SO4) is a messy business but less so than the previous choices available until 1890: electrocution and hanging.

San Quentin's gas chamber works like so: The subject is sealed in an air-tight, pressurized chamber. Pellets (or more accurately, briquettes) of sodium cyanide are mixed with sulfuric acid within the chamber. The subject, after a series of epileptic motions, dies from hypoxia, a condition that occurs when the brain fails to get oxygen. Death by gassing doesn't happen immediately, the prisoner is expected to play along and inhale the deadly fumes. It takes about ten minutes of twitching and straining against the straps for our subject to die. After ten minutes or so, the chamber is ventilated (another fifteen minutes). The remaining gasses are evacuated and the state is left with a corpse that must be scrubbed with bleach before it can be handled.

from: inside san quentin's death row
Execution is not the usual fate of Death Row inmates. On average, those who are executed spend 16 years in prison before they get a date with "the needle." So far, there have been 11 executions since the death penalty was reinstated in 1978. Twelve condemned inmates have committed suicide and some 30 have died of natural causes during that time.

san quentin was home at one point or another to charles manson, merle haggard, george jackson of the black panther party, sirhan sirhan, bobby kennedy’s assassin, and of course, stanley tookie williams, co-founder of the crips, nobel peace prize nominee, acclaimed author of anti-gang children’s books. the prison has hosted many shows with bonnie raitt, paul rodriguez, metallica - who aslo filmed the video for “st. anger” there, and, most well-known, johnny cash who released a recording of his concert
At San Quentin (The Complete 1969 Concert)

links of interest
california department of corrections and rehabilitation - san quentin
wikipedia entry for san quentin
rotten.com: san quentin
a visit to san quentin
inside death row at san quentin


what is this site?

just over a year ago, i read an article, just an average article about a crime and the perpetrator going to jail, and realized by the end of it, that the perpetrator was a very close friend of mine. having been out of touch for a while, i didn’t know what was going on in his life. i missed him though. and the news that he’d gone to jail didn’t make that any easier. he was someone who helped me through a lot of hard times in my life. he helped me love myself in the aftermath of events that would have had a very different outcome without the kind of support i got from him. he was, and still is, very special to me.

i wanted to understand what he was facing in prison. i wanted to know what daily life was like, what dangers existed for him. i wanted to know all i could so i could understand a little, what he was going through.

so i looked for books on the subject. they were few and far between. as far as daily prison life goes, there are so few memoirs and real life experiences recorded. i found a handful, the first of which was You Got Nothing Coming: Notes from a Prison Fish by Jimmy Lerner. this book was an incredible introduction for me into the world behind bars. it made me seek out more and more to the point that now, i have an extensive collection of books on the topic of prison and related issues and i feel like i cannot read fast enough. but i try.

through my reading i have become focused on one area in particular: the death penalty. i was raised by two incredible parents to be a compassionate and forgiving person and have always been rock solid in my stance on capital punishment. it is wrong. and as i read more and more on the topic, it only cements my opinion. if for no other reason, the death penalty should be abolished because of the very real epidemic of wrongful convictions. innocent men not only lose decades of freedom to zealous police officers, cheating lawyers and crooked judges, they also lose their lives.

in particular, after reading:

The Wrong Men: America's Epidemic of Wrongful Death Row Convictions


Actual Innocence: When Justice Goes Wrong and How to Make It Right

i found myself horrified at the extent to which this problem has been allowed to go. i began to follow the cases of several death row inmates. most recently, i was very troubled by the death of stanley “tookie” williams. i decided i had to do something.

after tossing out many ideas, i finally decided on this web site. what is this web site? well, i have written to a few death row inmates, some who claim their innocence and some who admit to guilt, in hopes that they will contribute to a blog. a simple record of what life is like for these men, what they face on a day-to-day basis and what they hope to achieve before it’s too late. i very much hope that a lot of them want to contribute so that this site will be updated as frequently as possible.

whether you agree with my opinion on the death penalty or not, this should be of interest to you. you cannot hold a truly educated opinion unless you learn, even about the things that disgust and terrify you the most.

a good friend of mine said to me, when i told him my idea for this web site after having a good cry for the loss of tookie, “you’re going to make yourself a wreck”. that’s true. but i’d be more of a wreck if i continued to feel helpless in the fight to end this brutal, cruel punishment.