Insiders Say California’s Integration of Death-Row Inmates May Accelerate Violence

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‘I never in a million years thought California would release these types of inmates to the general population. Have they lost their minds?’

The California Department of Corrections announced March 18 it is hastening a pilot program begun in 2020 to phase out segregated death row units at San Quentin prison and the Central California Women’s Facility, and transferring inmates to other prisons where they will be with the general population.

The policy seeks to comply with Proposition 66, requiring death row-sentenced individuals to work to pay restitution to victims as they serve sentences. The transfer program was approved Jan. 31, and the state’s Corrections Department began transferring individuals Feb. 26.

Like so many prison reforms in recent years, the policy is part of a broader shift toward downgrading security and integrating populations as the state moves to a rehabilitative model inspired by Norway’s correctional system.

According to California Department of Corrections Secretary Jeff Macomber, the inmates will be placed in prisons with an electrified perimeter while still integrating with the general population.

But insiders who spoke with The Epoch Times—currently incarcerated individuals, including one on death row at San Quentin, as well as current and former corrections officers—expressed concerns and uncertainties over the plan.

Many suggest the move represents a doubling down on failed policy that has resulted in increased violence inside California prisons.

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“I am honestly scared,” a veteran corrections officer at California Health Care Facility in Stockton, where some transferees have already arrived, told The Epoch Times. “There are some ‘heavyweights’ that are coming out of condemned row and will have a lot of influence on other inmates.”

Numerous inmates have already expressed their concern as well, the corrections officer said. He asked not to be identified for fear of retaliation.

A recent high-profile example is Richard Allen Davis, who was convicted in 1996 in the kidnapping and murder of 12-year-old Polly Klaas in Petaluma, California.

Mr. Davis, now known as “Rick” in the prison system, was a repeat offender whose case led to California adopting its infamous Three Strikes Law. He had been on death row at San Quentin before being transferred to the Stockton prison.

“I never in a million years thought California would release these types of inmates to the general population. Have they lost their minds?” asked the corrections officer, who previously worked at San Quentin. “Do they have any idea what can of worms they are truly opening?”

Hector Bravo, a former lieutenant with the corrections department, said most corrections officers will automatically assume the worst about condemned inmates being transferred to the general population.

Oftentimes, several sources told The Epoch Times, correctional staff are in the dark about policy changes that shift often and quickly, which has led to chaos in recent years.

But, Mr. Bravo acknowledged, such inmates have mostly been isolated from gang culture for decades, and may not pose much of a threat.

“They’ve been in a cage for years,” he said.

Officers check on prisoners at the Central California Women’s Facility. (California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation)
Officers check on prisoners at the Central California Women’s Facility. (California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation)

In 2019, Gov. Gavin Newsom signed an executive order imposing a moratorium on the death penalty, closing San Quentin’s execution chamber and granting all condemned prisoners temporary reprieves. The move is at odds with voters, who in recent years rejected two statewide ballot measures to repeal the death penalty.

“It’s not a problem until it is. What if a condemned inmate kills a young correctional officer?” Mr. Bravo said, arguing that younger officers are not receiving the same security training previous cohorts received. “Then we’re going to look back in hindsight and say, that was a bad idea. There was a process in the past and the process got removed.”

According to the corrections department, the pilot program has transferred more than 100 condemned inmates to eight institutions, thus far, without incident. An additional 16 institutions will soon be receiving more.

There are 644 inmates with condemned sentences currently in the California prison system.

For one inmate on death row at San Quentin the transfers are eliciting a mix of emotions—including hope, and apprehension.

“We’ve been here so long, we haven’t had cellies. It’s just going to be a big change,” he told The Epoch Times about moving to a new prison where he’ll eventually share a cell with someone, after being in isolation for more than a decade.

At San Quentin, death row inmates are escorted in handcuffs each time they leave or return to their cell. Even visiting and recreational time happens inside individual cages.

“I haven’t been on a full regular run. So I look forward to that, having my hands free,” he said.

Accelerating Integrations

A corrections department representative told The Epoch Times in an email that transferred death-row inmates would be designated as “Close Custody” for a minimum of five years, with activities only permitted during daylight hours, and limited to designated areas—such as high security at non-walled institutions and main security areas in those that are walled.

“The population under consideration is under constant and direct supervision,” the spokesperson said.

The San Quentin inmate interviewed for this story suggested limiting activities to daylight hours for five years was unfair.

“People who have been doing good, who have been here for so long, that time should be part of that five years. Starting fresh,” he said.

Transferring condemned inmates to general population yards is not entirely new and has occurred occasionally. But doing so wholesale, as in the emptying of San Quentin’s death row, represents an escalation of what some critics cite as a concerning trend.

Efforts to integrate different populations and security levels in an effort to have everyone “program” together, meaning participate in rehabilitation and education programming, insiders say, has already led to out-of-control violence, which is not typically reported in the media.

For inmates who have denounced gang life, such is a known and obvious danger.

“With General Population I’d have a problem, because of my status. If they have an opportunity, they have to stab me,” said the San Quentin death row inmate, a former gang member.

Active gang members on general population yards are “obligated” to attack so-called dropouts, he said.

“[Gang] drop-outs are targeted for death. All it takes is one dude to recognize the guy,” he said.

The correctional officer at California Health Care Facility confirmed the prison has all inmates roaming together—including sex offenders, gang dropouts and active gang members that would normally have a so-called “green light” to attack one another.

He said they’ve had numerous fights, stabbings and batteries against such inmates.

Prisoners from the San Quentin Rehabilitation Center. (California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation)
Prisoners from the San Quentin Rehabilitation Center. (California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation)

The Rehabilitation Model

Along with emptying out its death row, San Quentin, recently renamed “San Quentin Rehabilitation Center,” is the blueprint for California’s transformation to a Norway-style corrections system. Gov. Newsom has championed the transformation and approved $360 million for such.

For some inmates, reality has not lived up to the hype.

“We’ve been told, ‘it’s going to be better, you’re going to be programming and proactive in your rehabilitation, we’ll make it easier for you, and the living conditions will be more comfortable and conducive to rehabilitation,’” David Harrison, an inmate who has been serving a life sentence at the prison for more than three decades, told The Epoch Times.

According to Mr. Harrison officials keep saying they want to make San Quentin a single-cell prison, but, he said, “they are continuing to bring buses in and pack the prison more and more full.”

Mr. Harrison said they used to screen inmates before putting them in the “honor” unit where he resides, selecting only those who didn’t get a lot of write-ups. Now, he said, that doesn’t always appear to be the case.

Broadly, the corrections department has said it does not screen inmates before placing them in rehabilitation programs or facilities, such as San Quentin.

“The people coming on buses, they’re not screened at other institutions, asked, ‘Do you want to go to rehabilitation?’ None of that,” Mr. Harrison said.

“And when a bus comes in, they don’t do any screening before housing people, other than to see if they’re Crips or Bloods. They draw the line there. But otherwise they’ll just put anybody with anybody,” he said. “That is a major cause of violence.”

The bigger issue, many insiders say, is that shifts in how inmates are housed, along with the push toward rehabilitation at scale, is concurrent with relaxed security practices and a chaotic environment for both staff and inmates.

“It’s really surprising to me after all these decades how coddling they are,” Mr. Harrison said. “Inmates don’t believe they’re going to be held responsible or accountable and definitely not anytime soon.”

Mr. Harrison agrees with Mr. Bravo, the former lieutenant, that there are risks associated with a new generation of guards trained to focus on rehabilitation more than heavy-handed security—but, he said, he also sees the potential.

“If prisoners were treated more as adults, as responsible citizens, and held accountable, then the officers being re-trained wouldn’t be putting themselves or others in jeopardy. I think both parts are necessary to make it work,” he said.

For the veteran officer at California Health Care Facility, the issue comes down to inmates having too much freedom, and staff being told not to use force or profanity, but to instead opt for what officers call a “verbal judo” to calm inmates down.

“They are not watched like they should due to staffing shortages,” he said. “Inmates are able to be in such close proximity … they can sexually assault staff, batter staff and even attempt to murder them.”

Earlier this year, an inmate at Sierra Conservation Center in Central California allegedly took over a control booth, an often elevated observational room manned by an armed officer, and held a female officer hostage for more than four hours, during which he physically and sexually assaulted her.

And the corrections department reported five homicides and one deadly use of force—in which an officer allegedly shot and killed an inmate who was attempting to stab another inmate to death—in California prisons in the first six weeks of 2024. Last week, it announced it was investigating another deadly use of force on an inmate at its Correctional Training Facility.
Overall incidents have increased significantly in recent years, on average, by more than 40 percent. And important categories—like assaults and batteries on both inmates and non-inmates, as well as use of force and sexual assaults have also increased dramatically, even as the prison population decreases.

The officer at California Health Care Facility recounted being assaulted and battered numerous times and said he has had four surgeries due to his injuries and has PTSD.

The conditions persist, he says, because inmates know there won’t be consequences.

“I used to be so proud to be a [correctional] officer, but now I am kind of ashamed. We are looked down upon by so many,” he said.

The death row inmate, meanwhile, said he was apprehensive just at the thought of change, after being isolated, and, in some way, comfortable, for so many years.

While ongoing reforms move toward a model in which diverse populations participate in educational and rehabilitative programming together, it is unclear whether such activities will be mandatory or optional for death-row transfers. Prisoners who seek to parole must participate in such programs. The corrections department only said the transfers will be required to work to pay restitution.

Asked if he currently participates in education and rehabilitation activities, the death row inmate said no, “I’m not into it,” although he’s read thousands of books on his own.

But then he reconsidered.

“That’s something I’ve been thinking about because people are starting to get released, even lifers, you see all these people getting appeals and getting out,” he said.

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