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Crowded, Tedious : Death Row: A Place for Fear to Grow

First of two parts. Next: The strain placed on prison systems as Death Row populations continue to grow.

June 25, 1989|DAN MORAIN | Times Staff Writer

SAN QUENTIN — On occasion, when Luis Rodriguez walks past some of his neighbors' "houses," he imagines that skeletons are sitting inside, staring back at him.

"It's kind of like you're dead. You just haven't realized it yet," said Rodriguez, a muscular man of 33, who for the last eight years has lived on California's Death Row.

Nearly all of this state's 259 "condemned" live in East Block, California State Prison at San Quentin. It is a hangar-like structure, five tiers high, 60 cells to a tier, 70 years old. It is the nation's third-largest Death Row, behind Texas and Florida, and it is growing like a boom town.

Everything about Death Row is unprecedented. The population has never been so large. Prisoners have never stayed so long. Half have been there five years or longer, 15 have been there since 1979. California has never gone so long, 22 years, without an execution.

It can be violent. More often it is tedious. It is also becoming more bleak for the inmates. The state Supreme Court led by conservative Chief Justice Malcolm M. Lucas regularly upholds death sentences. Concerned that the affirmances are making the condemned men more desperate, San Quentin officials are tightening security in the already maximum-security East Block.

"You don't drop your vigilance on a group like that," said Daniel Vasquez, a tough, stocky 24-year veteran of the prison system who worked his way from a tier officer to become warden here in 1983. "Even though it (an execution) is still a faraway concept, the reality is that they are condemned to death."

In conducting more than 30 interviews and examining dozens of Death Row court documents, another reality stood just as forcefully: Death Row is a place of fear.

Loss of Privileges Feared

Wives of condemned men complained about strict visiting room rules and rude officers, but would not speak publicly for fear that their husbands would lose privileges.

Few prisoners would consent to interviews. They fear that any article about life on the row would only inflame passions about capital punishment and hurt their chances of winning retrials on appeal. One prisoner who agreed to an interview told of fears that gnaw at him.

"I don't even eat my food until my neighbors have started biting into theirs," said Robert Bloom, as concerned about what some of the officers might do to him as he is about his enemies among fellow inmates. " . . . Even then, I sit there and I smell it, and if anything smells wrong, I won't touch it."

Officers, who wear green uniforms, call themselves the Greens. Prisoners, who must wear blue shirts and blue jeans, are called the Blues. Greens talk about sports or some other innocuous topic with the Blues. But they never reveal anything personal for fear that prisoners could somehow use it against them. One veteran officer said he does not so much as register to vote because he worries that prisoners will get his address from the public record.

Inmates occasionally do attack officers, generally with prison-made blades, or by tossing hot water or whatever else is at hand. But for the most part, the Greens and Blues coexist.

The men spend a minimum of 20 hours a day in what most call their houses, cells that are 10 1/2 feet long, 4 3/4 feet wide and have concrete walls 10 inches thick. To pass the time, they stare at television, comb law books, or run scams hoping to gain an edge and make their lives easier.

3 Suicides This Year

Some develop powerful muscles by lifting weights during four hours a day on the exercise yard, or by doing endless push-ups in their cells. Prisoners with cells that front one of the long, narrow and unwashed windows can gaze upon San Francisco Bay.

Three have killed themselves in the last year. Others go crazy waiting for a death by lethal gas that will come who knows when. One thing they have is time. A dozen years after California reinstated the death penalty, few if any of them are going anywhere any time soon. Many are convinced they will never leave alive.

"They don't know where it's going to end, but they know they're never going to get out. You can see it in them," said Rodriguez, 33, who hopes one day to walk away free. A Superior Court judge has overturned his conviction for the murders of two California Highway Patrol officers in 1980, though he will remain on Death Row pending an appeal by the attorney general.

The furor in California over the death penalty has abated 2 1/2 years after voters affirmed their strong support of capital punishment by ousting liberal Chief Justice Rose Elizabeth Bird and two other justices. The liberals' conservative replacements have upheld 53 death sentences since taking over.

Prisoners, prosecutors and prison officials agree that executions are coming at some point. Some death penalty experts predict that executions will become routine in time. But with 1989 more than half over, chances are another year will pass without a state-sanctioned killing in California.

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