What Life Is Like on California’s Death Row

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

National Journal
Marina Koren
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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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