The East Block with its 520 single-cells is by far the largest housing on death row. Inmates spend much of their time in a space that’s about 6 feet by 9 feet, with no privacy and just a few amenities, including TV. (Blake McHugh/KQED)
Among my first impressions of death row when I recently toured San Quentin Prison: It’s loud. Dimly lit. There’s really no privacy. And so many of the inmates are elderly that it can at times resemble a high-security old folks home.
It’s been 10 years since California executed its last death row inmate. Since then, the death row population has grown to 745 (all but 21 are men, and the women are kept at the Central Women's Facility in Chowchilla).
Since 1978, 117 death row inmates have died, the vast majority from natural causes and suicide.
It's very rare for the media to see death row. But recently the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation offered about 20 journalists a tour. And of course I went.
I've been to the rest of San Quentin numerous times, and I was struck by how different death row is. Members of the general inmate population at San Quentin walk around with relative “freedom,” creating the feel of a college campus. They attend group classes, performances, religious services, etc.
Nothing could be less true for the inmates on death row. Their movement is highly restricted. When I was there, one inmate sat in a metal cage in East Block (the largest death row housing with 520 cells), waiting for an escort to the law library. No one walks around death row alone without a guard and restraints. During psychotherapy sessions, the inmates sit in individual cages to protect the therapists or, if it's group therapy, the other inmates.
If you violate the rules on death row, you’re sent to the “Adjustment Center." But even they get some time outside each week.
Robert Galvan was standing, shirtless, outside in a 12-by-9 rectangular cage the day I was there. His body is covered in tattoos. Galvan was sent to Corcoran Prison in 1996 -- he got a life sentence for robbery, a kidnapping for ransom and assault with a deadly weapon.
While he was at Corcoran a few years ago, he killed his cellmate. It was gang stuff, he says. That’s when he got the death sentence -- and was sent here.
Galvan took a break from doing pullups to talk through a chain-link fence.
What’s his day like?
"Day at a time, you know," he says. “Work out, same routine every day. Get up, eat breakfast, work out. Just take it a day at a time."
Galvan is 42 years old (another thing I noticed -- inmates generally look much older than they are). He tells me he deserves to be on death row for killing his “cellie.”
In 2006, federal Judge Jeremy Fogel suspended executions over concerns about the state's lethal injection process. With executions on hold for a decade now, I ask Galvan if men here think they’ll ever resume.
“Some think it ain’t going to happen, some think it's, you know, they’re going to start firing it up, me I’ll cross that bridge when I come to it,” Galvan says. I ask if he worries about being executed, but he doesn’t answer.
Nearby, Charles Crawford II is standing in another cage outside. The left side of his head is shaved, the rest is tied into a ponytail.
Crawford won't talk about the double homicide that sent him here because he says his case is under appeal. He spends his days reading and writing letters to his family and friends.
I ask him what death row inmates think about capital punishment.
"Opinions vary, just like I’m sure they vary on the outside," he says. "Some of us are against it, some of us not so much. Some of us, it’s like if they’re going to do it, do it and not have us sittin’ here for 20 or 30 years."
Even before the federal judge put executions on hold 10 years ago, death row inmates easily spent more than 20 years while their cases made their way through the courts. Crawford says death just isn’t at the front of their minds.
"You know what I mean, it’s like an abstract thought," he says. "So it’s not something that happens every day. Since I’ve been here they’ve only carried out two executions, so it’s not even like it’s a real punishment for a lot of people."
East Block is the largest housing unit at death row, with 520 single-cell units. As I walked around past the cells, I saw men lying on their beds or reading, writing or watching TV. Some joked with corrections staff as they walked by. Others shouted out, complaining about the conditions there.
Understandably, many of the men aren’t interested in talking to journalists. But some are.
"If society says that's it's wrong to kill and then they turn around and kill people they think are bad and killed other people, then that means that it's OK to kill," he reasons.
Apparently Hirschfield, now 66, thought it was OK to kill back in 1980. Thirty-three years later, he was convicted of killing two 18-year-old UC Davis freshmen, John Riggins and Sabrina Gonsalves, who were dating at the time. They were found dead in a ditch. Their throats had been slit and their heads wrapped in duct tape. Hirschfield denies he did it.
"I'm not too concerned about being executed," Hirshfield says, "because I really don't think that I'm going to be killed."
Raymond Anthony Lewis was sent to death row March 13, 1991.
Lewis stood up in his cell, leaning close to the bars enforced by metal mesh so I could hear him. “I’m ready to leave here,” he says, meaning he’s ready to die.
"Just recently within the last year I've asked my attorneys to stop my appeal," he says matter-of-factly. I ask him why.
"This is not living," he says. "This is no life in here. It's just existing. There's nothing. No emotions. No life. No nothing. And after so long you just become numb to it. You know?"
So, I ask, do you think most people here would rather be dead than living here?
"Oh, yes," Lewis says emphatically. "We talk about it every day in the yard. People are just tired of it. The state is not killing nobody. Guys here are dying from health reasons, old age or committing suicide."
That’s one thing I noticed -- how old many of these inmates are. Some look so frail it's almost hard to imagine the terrible, gruesome crimes they committed.
Lewis is 54, which surprised me. That’s three years younger than I am, but he looked a lot older. He's been on death row since 1991.
"This is the hardest part," he says. "Dying is easy."
And yet some say life is too good on death row.
For example, if they follow the rules and aren't considered too high-risk, they get certain privileges, like basketball.
On the day I was there, five inmates were shooting hoops on an enclosed cement court. As a group of journalists approached, two of the men stopped playing and turned their backs to us. One of them was Scott Peterson, who was convicted of murdering his pregnant wife, Laci, and dumping her body near the Berkeley Marina.
Steven Livaditis takes a break from playing basketball to talk with us through the fence. He describes the 1986 crime in Beverly Hills that resulted in his death sentence.
“I attempted to rob a jewelry store, and (three) people ended up being killed because of my actions," Livaditis says. I ask why he killed them.
Livaditis, 51, seemed to be fighting back tears as he answered.
"Because uh, I was an evil person," he says. "I don’t know any other way to put it, you know?"
Asked if he's still evil, Livaditis says no, because he's accepted Jesus Christ as his savior.
No matter how you feel about capital punishment, almost everyone agrees the system is broken in California.
Two very different solutions to this legal quagmire are being proposed for the November ballot -- one to ban executions, the other to speed them up. A new Field Poll shows Californians are evenly split on the two alternatives, with both getting about 47 percent support.
If proponents collect enough signatures, either or both measures will get a hearing from voters later this year.