Story by Jim Brown, managing editor
Photos by Terry Thornton, executive editor
(Editor’s note: CDC Today published this story in the fall 2002 edition, volume 14, number 3. Today, Terry Thornton is the deputy press secretary for CDCR’s Office of Public and Employee Communications. This story won State Information Officers Council awards for best feature and photography for 2002. As of Feb. 6, 2017, there were 749 inmates serving a death sentence in California. Only 21 of those are women, housed at a different institution.)
There are 614 convicted felons in California currently serving a death sentence. Some 450 of them are at San Quentin State Prison’s East Block, one of three condemned housing units at the prison.
Condemned inmates must be escorted by a correctional officer any time they leave their cells – to go to the yard, to visit with family or meet an attorney, to see a doctor or to attend a classification committee meeting. All inmate movements within East Block are coordinated by the desk officer, a position that requires an air traffic controller’s nerves of steel and a juggler’s coordination. It’s said to be one of the toughest jobs in the place.
Second watch running from 6 a.m. to 2 p.m. is the busiest time of day, with hundreds of inmate movements to the yard and various appointments. Correctional Officer Mike Begley, a 14-year San Quentin veteran and a man of few words, is the desk officer who must make sure it all goes smoothly.
5:50 a.m. – On a dark and chilly dawn in early May, a big moon hangs low over the Richmond-San Rafael Bridge that stretches across this end of the San Francisco Bay, just east of the Prison. Begley makes his way from the Front Count Gate through the Main Gate and into the Chapel Yard, a paved quadrangle where the administration building, chapel and other offices are located.
East Block is located a few minutes’ walk beyond. At Key Control, a walk-up window in a small building near the entrance to East Block, Begley stands in line with other officers to be issued keys he’ll use for the day.
5:57 a.m. – Begley steps through the black iron doors of East Block and signs in before walking through a wire gate into the “bayside” half of East Block (this side faces San Francisco Bay; the other side, called “yardside,” faces the center of the prison). His desk – for which his position is named – is situated on a low platform in the corner opposite the equipment room and serves as the hub of all activity in the building.
He leaves a small thermal cooler with his lunch at his desk and picks up pepper spray and a personal alarm from the equipment room, then walks down the tier to photocopy the yard list for the day. The list shows which inmates go to which of East Block’s eight yards, as well as those with medical appointments and meetings with legal counsel.
Begley sends a copy of the yard list to the officers on the gun rail above his desk by way of a white plastic bucket tied to a long rope. Walking the paperwork up to the gun rails would take about 10 minutes. For safety reasons, the gun rails can only be reached from a series of exterior rooftop catwalks leading from a control booth above the prison’s main gate.
Several bucket-and-rope systems have been rigged up around East Block to help minimize the number of trips up and down the five flights of stairs at the end of the cellblock. The only elevators in East Block are two out-of-commission dumbwaiters. Until they’re repaired, anything that doesn’t fit into one of the buckets must be carried up or down the stairs.
East Block looks like something out of a movie. Built in 1927, it’s a large cavernous shell of a building that contains a long, freestanding, five-tier cellblock running down its middle. Two gun rails suspended from the building’s interior walls encircle the building, facing the cellblock on all sides. With its tall overhead spaces and many levels, East Block operates vertically as well as horizontally. Everyone who works there spends much of his or her day looking up from below or down from above.
6:20 a.m. – Over the public address system that can be heard throughout the building and the yards outside, Begley calls officers’ names from a roster of the day’s work assignments: yard, gate operations, passageway, handcuffs, wand, and pat search. He then calls out the names of inmates with legal visits. No regular visits are scheduled this day, due to classification committee meetings being held all day. When he announces that yards 1 and 2 are canceled (a gate lock needs repairing), there’s a brief chorus of shouted complaint from those inmates who will be spending today indoors.
6:44 a.m. – “One Bay,” Begley’s voice booms over the PA system, announcing the start of the yard release. It will begin with the first tier on the bayside of East Block.
The first inmate, cuffed from behind and dressed in a t-shirt, underwear, socks and shoes, stops near the open door leading outside. An officer with the kind magnetic “wand” you see at airports thoroughly checks the inmate for metal contraband and waves him through. Outside, at the gate leading into the appropriate yard, an officer will remove the cuffs, periodically returning with an armload for use with the next batch of inmates.
The process of releasing inmates to the yard takes more than an hour. Each inmate who chooses to go out to the yard that day is cuffed before leaving his cell. He carries whatever belongings he wants to take with him – pants and shirt, bag lunch, sunglasses, cup, book, playing cards – in a mesh bag that gets sent through a metal detector. No more than five or six inmates move down the tiers, down the stairs and out the door at any one time.
Begley watches the slow parade from his desk, looking intently at the face of each inmate as he passes by, matching each face with a laminated picture ID card kept at the desk. He makes a stack of cards, one per yard and as each yard is filled, he tucks the stacks into a set of bins on his desk.
Condemned inmates who choose to program are called “Grade A” inmates. They qualify for yard seven days a week, among other limited privileges. Only Grade A inmates live on the side of the East Block where Begley works. A mix of Grade A inmates, a small number of violent condemned inmates known as Grade Bs, and inmates on administrative segregation status live on the other side.
7:44 a.m. – Alarm! A loud buzzing sounds throughout the building. An officer’s personal alarm, a pager-sized device worn clipped to the belt, has been activated. Everyone freezes and looks around. Tier officers shout to each other as they move quickly through the building to find the officer who sounded the alarm. Gun rail officers run down the gun rails to check the tiers.
After about a minute or so, a yard officer stick his head in the door and yells, “yard clear!” The alarm isn’t coming from outside. And it’s quickly apparent that no problem has occurred inside either. It’s a false alarm. Personal alarms are notoriously sensitive. Everyone breathes again and the day’s bustle resumes.
7:59 a.m. – As the last inmate heads out to the yard, Begley notes the time in the sergeant’s large logbook, where the desk officer documents each day’s key events, including the start time of yard releases, outdoor temperatures three times a day (to help with monitoring inmates at special risk of heat-related injuries) and any incidents.
8:22 a.m. – Six yards of East Block’s eight yards are in use today. In Yard 3, a dozen or so Southern Hispanics do calisthenics together, one inmate standing aside watching their backs as they exercise. The several dozen other inmates in the yard, including whites and African Americans, sit at stainless steel picnic tables and read, chat or play cards. Other inmates play hoop, stand in the warm morning sunshine, or wash up in the sink and shower located inside the yard.
In a neighboring yard, a tall inmate with a lean runner’s build jobs short laps, expertly threading his way through the groups of other inmates in the yard. No one seems to notice or mind.
10:17 a.m. – Three armed officers watch over the yards from the gun rail that runs the length of East Block. From this position, they can see out past the tall cinder-block walls of the yard to the shimmering waters of San Francisco Bay and dark hills above Richmond and Berkeley beyond. The day is already beautiful.
11:05 a.m. – Correctional Officer R. Spencer is pulling his once-a-week shift on the gun rail (today he’s on the upper rail, about three stories above the ground floor). The rest of the week he works as a tier officer, like those he watches over.
The gun rails inside East Block – three-foot-wide wooden catwalks with a single cable that serves as the railing – can only be reached from the yard rail outside. There are two officers per tier, one pair for each side of East Block. When tier officers walk down the tiers or escort and inmate from his cell, a gun rail officer shadows them from the gun rail. The lower gun rail covers the first, second and third tiers. The upper gun rail covers the fourth and fifth tiers.
“Up here, it is 98 percent boredom and 2 percent excitement,” says Spencer. “We prefer the boredom.”
Spencer and three other gun rail officers will spend the entire shift up on the rail. They take bathroom breaks using a toilet located right on the catwalk in the corner, one on each rail. A heavy dark curtain is pulled around it for privacy.
1:03 p.m. – The Receiving and Release Unit, located on the lower level of San Quentin’s Administration Building, is where inmates newly arrived from county jail or another CDC institution are processed into the prison. Today, a newly convicted condemned inmate has arrived for processing. Three to four new condemned inmates arrive at San Quentin each month.
Two correctional officers in riot gear (but no firearms) arrive to escort the new condemned inmate to the Adjustment Center, the first stop for all incoming condemned inmates. His slow walk down around the end of the Administration Building and up the hill to the Adjustment Center takes about five minutes. Along the way, the escort officers wave away any nearby staff and inmates.
1:17 p.m. – “Busy. Not too bad.” That’s how Begley’s day has gone. “We had a small yard that didn’t take too long to run. Lots of escorts, though. Normal day.” There have been 33 escorts so far (not counting yard releases).
Yard is over. Inmates are returning one at a time, cuffed and carrying their belongings, through the same door they left from this morning.
1:20 p.m. – The last inmate returns from yard and heads for his cell. Tier officers return armfuls of cuffs to the equipment room opposite Begley’s desk.
Begley starts to prepare for the end of his shift. He walks from his desk and retrieves a 37 mm launcher and pepper spray canister the size of a fire extinguisher from a box located just outside the door to the yard. He brings the weapon inside and hooks it to the rope hanging down from the gun rail. The gun rail officer above hauls it up to be returned to the armory. The pepper spray is returned to the equipment room.
1:39 p.m. – Begley returns his personal alarm and other equipment to the equipment room. Begley pulls out his coat and shoulders his thermal cooler, then retraces his steps back out into the sunshine, the first he’s seen all day.
“There are so many things going on at one time,” says Begley about his job. “Three phone lines ringing, moves going on, escorts, doing the cards all at the same time – it’s a challenge. The day goes by very fast.”
Begley bid for a job in East Block because he likes working in lock-up units, although he didn’t bid for the desk officer job. He’s been desk officer since February. His post ends in November and he hasn’t decided whether he’ll bid for it again.
“I was pulling my hair out the first couple weeks, but you get used to it,” he explains. “This is one of the hardest jobs here. I can get up out of the chair maybe one or two times a day.”
1:50 p.m. – Like he did this morning, Begley stands in line to return his keys to Key Control. A few minutes later he’s passing back through the Main Gate and headed for home in the beautiful afternoon sunshine.