California set to dismantle nation’s largest death row

SACRAMENTO, Calif. (AP) — California Governor Gavin Newsom, who imposed a moratorium on executions three years ago, is now set to dismantle the largest death row in the United States by transferring all sentenced inmates in other prisons within two years.

The goal is to transform the San Quentin State Prison section into a “positive and healing environment.”

“We are beginning the process of closing death row to repurpose and transform current housing units into something innovative and rooted in rehabilitation,” corrections department spokeswoman Vicky Waters told The Associated Press. .

California, which last carried out an execution in 2006, is one of 28 states that maintain death row, along with the US government, according to the Death Penalty Information Center. While other states like Illinois have abolished executions, California merges its sentenced inmates with the general prison population without expecting any of them to be executed anytime in the near future.

Oregon also moved its much smaller convict population to other inmate housing two years ago.

Newsom, a Democrat, imposed a moratorium on executions in 2019 and closed the state execution chamber in San Quentin, north of San Francisco. Now his administration is reversing a 2016 voter-approved initiative to speed up executions by capitalizing on a provision that allowed inmates off death row.

“The administration’s underlying motive is to bring in as many of these convicted murderers as possible,” said Michael Rushford, president of the Criminal Justice Legal Foundation, which has backed the initiative. “Our goal was to speed up the process.”

He added that he doesn’t think the victims are happy with the administration’s decision.

“They are moving convicted murderers to facilities that are going to make their lives better and provide them with more amenities, while victims are still mourning the death of a family member,” Rushford said.

Corrections officials launched a two-year voluntary pilot program in January 2020 that as of Friday had moved 116 of the state’s 673 convicted male inmates to one of seven other prisons with maximum-security facilities and surrounded deadly electrified fences.

They intend to submit a proposal for permanent regulations within weeks that would make transfers mandatory and “allow for the repurposing of all death row housing,” Waters said.

The ballot measure approved six years ago also required convicted inmates to participate in prison labor, with 70% of the money earmarked for restitution to their victims, and corrections officials said it was their goal with transfers. By the end of last year, more than $49,000 in compensation had been collected through the pilot program.

Newsom’s proposed budget for the fiscal year beginning July 1 calls for $1.5 million to find new uses for vacant condemned housing.

He notes that death row and its ancillary activities are in the same area as the facilities used for San Quentin’s medium-security inmate rehabilitation programs. The money would be used to hire a consultant to ‘develop options for (the) space focused on creating a positive and healing environment to provide more opportunities for rehabilitation, education and health care’ .

San Quentin’s $853,000 never-used execution chamber is in a separate area of ​​the prison, and there are no plans to “reuse” that area, Waters said.

California voters supported the death penalty in 2012 and 2016, although legislative opponents have said they hope to bring the issue back to voters in future years. An advisory group to Newsom and lawmakers, the Penal Code Review Committee, in November became the latest to recommend repeal of the death penalty, calling it “irreparable”.

Under the state transfer program, sentenced prisoners transferred to other prisons may be placed in solitary confinement or disciplinary solitary confinement if authorities decide they cannot be safely housed with others, although that they are supposed to be interspersed with other inmates. Death row inmates are housed one per cell, but transferred inmates may be housed with others if deemed safe.

“There were no safety issues and no major disciplinary issues arose,” Waters said.

When it comes to jobs and other rehabilitation activities, convicts outside of death row are treated the same as inmates serving a life sentence without the possibility of parole. . This includes a variety of jobs such as maintenance and administrative duties, according to prison officials.

Sentenced inmates are counted more often and are constantly monitored during activities, officials said.

Under current rules, convicted prisoners can be transferred unless they are in restricted accommodation for disciplinary reasons, have charges pending or have been convicted of certain disciplinary offenses during of the past five years.

But they are also “carefully screened to determine whether they can safely participate in the program,” according to the department. This includes such things as each inmate’s security level, medical, psychiatric and other needs, behaviour, security concerns and notoriety.

Convicted inmates are housed at the Central California Women’s Facility in Chowchilla. They can be moved to less restrictive accommodation within the same prison, and eight of the 21 have done so.

Men can be transferred to the California Correctional Institution; California Medical Institution; California State Prison, Corcoran; Centinela State Prison; Kern Valley State Prison; Richard J. Donovan Correctional Institution; or Salinas Valley State Prison.

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