On Death Row at San Quentin

August 22nd, 2011 // No Comments

What is it like lving on Death Row?  The question haunted me. Why not find out? I was apprehensive when I drove into the visitors’ parking lot, but didn’t feel threatened. It has to be the safest place on earth. It’s security is second to none. Though my friend Valerie has been dealing with Charles’ story for ten years, she is still ill at ease and had asked me to accompany her. For me all this was new. I’d seen the huge yellow and brick building, built in 1880, over-looking the San Francisco Bay from the freeway. Now I would find out what’s going on inside.  Some 700 inmates are on death row alone. Charles was one of them, a convicted serial killer.  I’d read Valerie’s description of his background and trial and would now meet the man who allegedly had killed between 12 and 25 women and children. I remembered the media reports,  splashing the gruesome evidence all over the page.  Since it can take up to 20 years to get a lawyer to file an appeal, he may have to wait.  Leaving the parking lot we asked a young woman for directions. She offered other advice as well. She visits often – as volunteer. Even a dark place like this has people who empathize with the condemned. Perhaps I too could bring a bright moment to a doomed man. Mass murderer or not, we’re all people and do crazy things under certain circumstances. Luckily, I hadn’t been in one of them. Men think nothing of killing their enemies in war, but in peacetime they care convicted as murderers. The young woman told us that jeans, low cut tops or underwire bras were forbidden. Shoot. I wore one. What should I do with it?   I stuck it into an empty letter box. That’ll be some find! For my jeans I was taken to a place that had clothes to lend, run by volunteers. The situation comes up all the time. Then we fill out an application, wait in line with other women and their children until we can enter the office. Our names check out. We pass the security detector. The visiting area is at the end of the block-long building. The windows show no sign of life. Nobody’d suspect that hundreds of people wait for their execution, hoping for parole. Their guards watch every move. More automatic iron doors, checking of IDs’ and then we can enter the visiting room where inmates sit in iron cages like animals in a zoo, watching the visitors enter. A bustle at the vending machine where we can buy the food Charles had asked for in his letter. We pull out the dollar bills we were allowed to take inside in a plastic bag. The inmates wear clean blue shirts and jeans, their hair is cut and their faces are freshly shaven. Trapped. An eye for an eye.  Killers must pay for their deeds with their lives. Considering how slow the judicial wheel moves, they’d probably pass on before the lethal injection will deliver their punishment. They can wait. Death comes soon enough. We are free to come and go. Charles has no special place in our lives. Not yet, anyway. At the vending machines we get ice cream, salad, oranges, soda and a hamburger, following the instructions he gives us from his cage. His 50 year old face looks well-fed. Eating is the only pleasure left to him. Though prison food is adequate, he longs for fresh fruits and juice. Carrying the tray we watch the guard put handcuffs on Charles before he is led out of the cage. The door is locked. Only after we enter and our door is locked  is he allowed to join us. Should he make any suspicious move he’d probably be shot on the spot.  “Thanks for coming,” he says before Valerie introduces me. We shake hands. While he and Valerie compare their experiences at Folsom prison, dwelling on the inhuman treatment they both experienced there, I study his features. Not a mean streak in his smooth, puffy face. The eyes are at ease. “It’s so much better here,” he says as if he’d landed in luxury.  We can talk freely, surrounded by the low hum of the voices coming from the cages all around. Sitting on plastic chairs we watch Charles devour his food, draining the juice bottle first. He talks while chewing eager to eat as much as he can during our visit, rather than dump it before he must return to his cell, a tiny windowless enclosure where he’ll spend the rest of his life.  The twenty minute period outdoors and the TV is all the distraction he gets. That leaves lots of time or reflection. Valerie had mentioned his anger when she had first met him, his cursing the inhumane treatment (chained, a tiny cage, lack of a facility for relieving himself and the insults and kicks from the guards.) No point in mentioning that he was being punished for his crimes. Even a trapped animal fares better. Guilty or not, what happened to human rights? Should a civilized society act like tribal people? Charles is Chinese from Hong Kong who came to America after being educated in the UK. He speaks fluent English and is well read. It’s difficult not to relate to him as a fellow human being. I don’t believe in vengeance or capital punishment, but tend to reason the circumstances that drove this person to commit the crime. Yes, there are evil people. But if we’d put them all in prison, we’d be putting even more of a burden on the system.  The real evil ones tend to be psychopaths whose dark lives remain undetected. No idea where Charles fits in nor whether he actually committed the crimes he was convicted for.  Circumstantial evidence points to his guilt. Valerie’s book will illuminate the missing links and explain his background, the Chinese tradition that ostracizes family members for bringing shame on their name. In America a good lawyer can get his client off the hook a la OJ Simpson. Charles has  neither money nor status and was left by his buddy, Lennard Lake, who committed suicide and cannot be held responsible for his crimes. After his being taken into custody Lake bit on a cyanide capsule and dropped dead. Charles insists he had no part of the murders. The judge and jury thought otherwise. He was convicted but the question is not resolved. Wrong time, wrong place, a fluke of destiny? We’ll never know for sure, but my visits to San Quentin will open that other world to me – life in a penetentiary.







Leave a Reply