SAN QUENTIN — They call them the “worst of the worst” – death row inmates who spend hours fashioning weapons out of unlikely materials and hurl filthy concoctions at passing guards.
Some want violent inmates evicted to other facilities, pointing to an increase in attacks on staff as proof that aging San Quentin State Prison, built in 1852, isn’t equipped for the bleeding edge of 21st-century malefaction.
“The people in (maximum security) prisons are in more secure prisons than our current death row,” says Stephen Green, assistant secretary of the Youth and Adult Correctional Agency. “That’s the problem with San Quentin. It just simply isn’t as secure as it should be to have that kind of inmate there.”
Part of the nation’s largest prison system – California has 160,000 inmates – San Quentin doesn’t have the no-contact design of modern prisons, which use remote-control doors and other innovations to keep prisoners separate from guards.
At San Quentin, officers have constant hand-to-hand dealing with inmates, pushing in and retrieving food trays, exchanging clean laundry for dirty, and escorting prisoners to the showers and exercise yards. The cells, which are made of bars, have a metal screen in front, but that’s not enough to stop “gassing” attacks, the noxious practice
of throwing mixtures of urine and feces.
Officers also are at risk when they collect an inmate’s food tray.
The design of the food slot means the officer and inmate are inches apart and if the officer is distracted, sometimes intentionally by another inmate, the inmate can pull the officer’s hands through the slot.
While the majority of death row prisoners do not cause problems, attacks have increased threefold in the past year and a half in the Adjustment Center, the place where the most disruptive death row inmates are sent, prison officials say.
Forty-five of the center’s 85 inmates have attacked guards, according to prison staff.
“We’ve had officers that have had their arms grabbed as they’re trying to issue a tray of food and the inmate takes a slashing device and slashes at their wrists,” says Tony Jones, president of the San Quentin correctional officers’ union. Some inmates have made spears by rolling up a newspaper very tightly, coating it with oatmeal to create a hard crust and then finding a piece of metal for the tip, creating a weapon “every bit strong enough to stick into a cement wall or stick into you.”
A number of ideas have been floated about what to do with San Quentin: Close it, move death row, split death row into two or break it down into smaller units distributed to maximum security prisons throughout the state.
A state study on the feasibility of closing San Quentin is due at the end of this month for review by state officials and the governor, who has final say.
Meanwhile, a more modest proposal is making its way through the Legislature that would send up to 30 of the most troublesome inmates to California State Prison, Sacramento, a modern facility next to Folsom State Prison.
That idea, put forward by Assemblyman Joe Nation, D-San Rafael, has passed in the Assembly and is scheduled for a Senate committee hearing July 10.
Not surprisingly, the bill is less than popular with residents of the Folsom area.
Jones opposes the idea of closing San Quentin.
“We’ve rebuilt this institution in the last 10 years completely. I don’t think that it’s a broken-down institution that can’t go on,” he said.
But he thinks getting rid of the worst death row inmates is a good idea.
“Even if it was to move 10, it would help,” he says. “You’re housing an inmate in a facility that currently poses a clear and present danger to all staff that works with them.”
Inmate advocates say not all violence can be blamed on inmates.
They suggest some of the recent violence may have been in reaction to restrictions on visiting and access to exercise yards. They oppose the idea of moving inmates away from San Francisco, which is where a large number of death row lawyers practice.
“The only people who should be moved out are the ones who suffer from severe mental illness,” says Robert Bryan, who represents a number of death row inmates.
Steve Fama of the Prison Law Office, which provides free legal services to help improve inmates’ living conditions, said he’s concerned that inmates who get moved out won’t have the same access to legal resources like law libraries and will be allowed fewer attorney visiting days.
Fama’s also unsure whether the increased assaults are “the start of the trend or merely another turn of the wheel” and thinks the state should take a closer look at the Adjustment Center to see what’s going on with inmates, staff and supervisors.
“The idea that moving 10 or 20 inmates ... is going to solve the problem is a little naive,” Fama says.