SAN LUIS OBISPO, Calif. (CN) — As I entered the visitation room at San Quentin’s death row, I gazed at the condemned inmates there and thought about all the awful things these men had done.
California’s death row prisoners include serial killers, child abductors, white supremacists and gang members. Some of them had tortured their victims, others had dismembered corpses. Several had burned people alive.
As if to prove how truly bad it was there, when the inmate I had arranged to visit appeared, he looked like he had been hit by a car: His right arm was in a brace, as were both thighs. He had a noticeable lump on his head, and he moved his jaw awkwardly, the legacy of having it previously wired shut.
“What happened to you?” was my first obvious interview question.
Michael Whisenhunt nodded toward the wounded arm.
“This is how it is here,” he said, matter-of-factly. “These are the consequences of my actions.”
In 2001, more than two decades before Governor Gavin Newsom decided to shut down death row and transform San Quentin State Prison into a rehabilitation facility, I covered the capital murder trial of Rex Krebs, a convicted rapist who was charged with abducting, raping and murdering two female college students in San Luis Obispo County. Sensing that Krebs would be condemned to death, I wanted to offer a look into his future, so I arranged to visit Whisenhunt – the most recent man sentenced to death from the same county – on two occasions when the Krebs trial was not in session.
Whisenhunt, who was polite and well spoken, said death row reeked of stale sweat, echoed with constant yelling and swarmed with anger.
“This is a madhouse,” Whisenhunt told me, gesturing to the visitation room, where several other condemned inmates met with visitors in separate metal cages. “This is insane. There is no warmth, and there’s no emotion – except hatred.”
The state’s oldest prison, San Quentin opened in 1852. While inmates were executed at Folsom State Prison in the early days, San Quentin has been the only place male inmates have been executed since 1937, when the gas chamber replaced hanging. In total, over 400 executions have been carried out at San Quentin.
However, the state has not executed an inmate in 17 years. And in 2019, Newsom signed an executive order declaring a moratorium on the death sentence, which he said was morally wrong and unfairly administered.
In January, 2020, the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation began relocating the state’s nearly 700 condemned inmates, public information officer Tessa Outhyse wrote in an email to Courthouse News. That two-year pilot program eventually became permanent.
“As of April 28, 101 death-sentenced males housed at San Quentin have been transferred to other institutions,” Outhyse wrote.
In March, Newsom announced new plans for San Quentin.
“California is transforming San Quentin – the state’s most notorious prison with a dark past – into the nation’s most innovative rehabilitation facility focused on building a brighter and safer future,” he said in a statement. “Today, we take the next step in our pursuit of true rehabilitation, justice, and safer communities through this evidenced-backed investment, creating a new model for safety and justice — the California Model — that will lead the nation.”
The move has been predictably controversial.
“I think the whole thing is a sick joke,” said Mike Rushford, president and CEO of the Criminal Justice Legal Foundation, a nonprofit that advocates for tough-on-crime laws.
Death row inmates, he said, represent special security risks and should not be housed with other inmates.
“These are the worst murderers in the country,” Rushford said. “These are the worst of the worst.”