What Life Is Like on California’s Death Row

A journalist shares her experience interviewing the state’s worst offenders.

National Journal
Marina Koren
April 28, 2014, 11:38 a.m.

Cali­for­nia has not car­ried out an ex­e­cu­tion since 2006, when a court ruled to halt the pro­cess, cit­ing flaws with­in the sys­tem. As the morator­i­um con­tin­ues, about 750 pris­on­ers re­main on the state’s death row.

On Monday af­ter­noon, the only journ­al­ist in a dec­ade to in­ter­view mem­bers of Cali­for­nia’s only death row for male in­mates, at San Quentin State Pris­on, answered ques­tions about them via Red­dit. The journ­al­ist is Nancy Mul­lane, au­thor of Life After Murder, a 2012 book chron­ic­ling five mur­der­ers and who they be­came after com­mit­ting their crimes. Be­low is a se­lec­tion of her an­swers about Cali­for­nia’s worst of­fend­ers.

On the most dis­turb­ing case Mul­lane en­countered:

One in­mate, Justin Helzer. There was a “visu­ally im­paired” sign hanging out­side his cell door next to a wheel­chair. When I asked to speak with him, he was open and will­ing, and his story was hor­ri­fy­ing. He had tried to kill him­self in­side his cell by try­ing to punc­ture his eyes with bic pens. In­stead of killing him­self, he was blinded and para­lyzed. His story said so much about how deeply de­press­ing it is for the men I met on death row to be locked in their cells 23-24 hours a day for the rest of their lives.

On how the in­mates she in­ter­viewed felt about their crimes:

Most pris­on­ers I in­ter­viewed on death row said they were not guilty of their crimes. Only one in­mate said he was guilty, and [Justin Helzer] com­mit­ted sui­cide shortly after I in­ter­viewed him.

What in­mates said they would do if giv­en a second chance:

I’ve spoken to hun­dreds of men in pris­on who were con­victed of a murder and many who have been re­leased from pris­on after be­ing found suit­able by a pa­role board. Each has a dif­fer­ent his­tory, crime, and has used their time in pris­on to change fun­da­ment­ally how they be­came a per­son who could com­mit a murder to a per­son who can be trus­ted nev­er to com­mit a crime again. They are all in­di­vidu­als and if there is one com­mon state­ment about what they would do with their lives is giv­en a second chance, it would be to re­turn to so­ci­ety and do good. Simple.

What their pris­on cells looked like:

The single-man cells are fairly dark, about 4 feet across by 9 feet from front to back. The ceil­ing is about 7 feet high. The floor and walls are ce­ment. There is a met­al frame bed with a spring mat­tress, a small steel sink, and a steel toi­let.

What re­port­ing from in the in­side was like:

Press ac­cess in all Cali­for­nia pris­ons is “ran­dom” ac­cess. You can’t ask to speak with a spe­cif­ic pris­on­er by name or num­ber, so there is no pos­sible way to pre­pare for an in­ter­view. [Up­date: A spokes­man for the Cali­for­nia De­part­ment of Cor­rec­tions and Re­hab­il­it­a­tion tells us that while re­ports can’t tour a pris­on and in­ter­view spe­cified in­mates, they can re­quest to vis­it an in­mate. If the in­mate con­sents, the re­port­er may then con­duct an in­ter­view.] On death row, I was al­lowed to walk the tier — 50 cells long, 5 tiers high. I wasn’t giv­en a map to know which in­mate was locked up where. I was al­lowed to ap­proach any cell and ask if the in­mate wanted to be in­ter­viewed. I had a tape deck and a cam­era. I was com­pletely sur­prised by how forth­com­ing the pris­on­ers were. They hadn’t seen a “free” per­son who wasn’t an of­ficer or an ad­min­is­trat­or with the pris­on in more than a dec­ade. It was hard to see their eyes through the sheet of por­ous met­al over the front of the bars, but every man was open to talk­ing. It was over­whelm­ing to see so many hu­man be­ings locked in such small cells.

On re­port­ing as a wo­man:

Pris­on­ers have al­ways been re­spect­ful. I know it’s hard to be­lieve, but it’s true. I hear more “ex­cuse me”, “thank you”, “please,” in pris­on than out­side the walls. I’ve heard yelling and scream­ing, but not dir­ec­ted at me.

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