California moves to shutter death row in midst of federal inquiry

SACRAMENTO, Calif. — Governor Gavin Newsom informally announced at an unrelated press conference on Monday that the state of California would break up its death row at San Quentin State Prison, the largest in the United States, in a move to convert the facility to a “positive healing environment” after moving all condemned inmates to other facilities.

As part of Proposition 66, passed by voters six years ago, various restrictions and time limits on legal challenges to death sentences effectively serve as measures to expedite the execution process. The initiative also allows inmates to be moved off of death row, which Newsom said he doubts voters understood at the time.

“The voters, a number of years ago, upheld the principles of the death penalty,” Newsom said. “But in so doing, are requiring us as a state to make those on death row work.”

Newsom’s office says the state plans to accomplish that goal by moving inmates into other facilities, which would also free up San Quentin’s physical death row space so it could be used as an “innovative, rehabilitation-and-reentry-focused institution” that would serve to decrease incarceration rates and increase public safety.

Newsom said that the state was planning to create a process to “reprogram” death row facilities after inmates are divided up amongst California’s seven maximum-security facilities outfitted with lethal electric fences. A budget sheet written up by the governor’s office has dedicated $1.5 million to the plan.

The 54-year-old governor, who beat back a republican-led recall attempt in September, has presented himself as a staunch opponent of the death penalty throughout his term. In March of 2019, he halted all executions in California and closed San Quentin’s $853,000 execution chamber, calling the process a failure that provides no benefit to public safety.

“It’s a racist system, you cannot deny that,” he told CBS Mornings two days after signing the executive order. “There’s no equal justice in this system. It’s a system that is perpetuating inequality, it’s a system that I cannot, in good conscience, support.”

California’s last execution, that of 76-year-old Clarence Ray Allen, occurred in 2006 under Arnold Schwarzenegger just one day after the convicted killer’s birthday. Allen strangled 17-year-old Mary Sue Kitts, who helped him cash money orders stolen from a grocery store, after Kitts told the young man whose parents owned the grocery store about the robbery.

While in prison, Allen organized the killing of three more people, including a witness who testified against him in the prior case.

The state’s move to close death row comes in the midst of a federal investigation into the smuggling of contraband to condemned inmates and the alleged roles that corrupt state prison guards play in that smuggling. The probe was first reported by Nate Gartrell of the Bay Area News Group.

Several charges have been handed down in federal court so far against CDCR guard Keith Christopher, and two others, for allegedly bringing electronics to a condemned inmate who, in turn, distributed them throughout the prison. Those items include cell phones, mobile game controllers, and SIM cards.

Authorities say Christopher smuggled 25 cell phones into prison, charging $500 for each phone, which were then sold to other prisoners for up to $900 each. He faces a maximum sentence of 20 years in prison.

Ethan Biando
Ethan Biando is a freelance journalist from Sacramento. His writing focuses on crime, courts, and policing. Find him on Twitter @ethanb822

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