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Waiting in Isolation : Punishment: The first woman on California's Death Row in 15 years has fewer privileges than any male condemned prisoner. Some say that is typical of the unequal treatment of female inmates.

January 25, 1991|MILES CORWIN | TIMES STAFF WRITER

FRONTERA — Maureen McDermott has fewer privileges, greater restrictions and is more isolated than any other condemned inmate in the California prison system.

It is not because of her behavior behind bars. She is described as a model inmate by prison authorities. It is not because of her crime. She paid a man to murder her roommate so she could collect his insurance policy, but many inmates on Death Row have committed crimes just as heinous.

McDermott is denied the basic freedoms other Death Row inmates take for granted simply because she is a woman, the first woman on Death Row in California in 15 years.

McDermott's life on Death Row highlights the unequal treatment women inmates receive in the prison system, experts say, and draws attention to the status of condemned women, who often are left out of the capital punishment debate. American Civil Liberties Union attorneys currently are investigating the McDermott case.

The Death Row for women at Frontera bears little resemblance to the sprawling series of cellblocks at San Quentin Prison, where 297 condemned men are awaiting execution. The women's Death Row consists of a single cell at the California Institution for Women, in a maximum security housing unit called Greystone.

McDermott, 43, a former nurse at County-USC Medical Center, is locked inside a 6-by-12-foot cell with a solid steel door almost 23 hours a day. She has no contact with other inmates, and lives a life of almost complete isolation. On the average day, she leaves her cell for about an hour, only to exercise--alone--on a small patch of blacktop behind the prison. She is allowed to leave her cell three times a week for showers.

The men on Death Row who are not disciplinary problems, however, are allowed to leave their cells from 9 a.m. to 3 p.m. They can play cards or table tennis, or just wander along the walkways and visit with other inmates. On the yard they can play basketball together, lift weights or work out on punching bags.

They have access to typewriters, and, unlike McDermott, who is separated from visitors by glass and must communicate by telephone, the men are allowed contact visits.

The men have these privileges because a number of inmates filed a lawsuit in the late 1970s, and a federal court ordered the prison to improve Death Row living conditions. But the court order, and the specific privileges mandated, apply just to the men at San Quentin, not to condemned women.

By treating McDermott differently than condemned men, the state prison system is taking a position that is grossly unfair, sexist and possibly unconstitutional, prison experts say.

"People may be appalled by her crime, and glad she's off the streets, but that doesn't justify locking her up like a caged animal," said Joe Ingber, her trial attorney. "If we want to live in a fair society . . . then we should treat all of our condemned inmates fairly."

McDermott has declined to comment, Ingber said, because her appellate attorney has advised her not to talk to the press, and because "she fears that if she ruffles any feathers she'll be treated worse." Ingber, who has visited McDermott several times, said she has been "terribly depressed" because of the isolation.

Prison officials at Frontera say it would be too expensive and too time-consuming for their staff to provide McDermott with the same amenities the men have at San Quentin.

"It has nothing to do with sexism; it's a matter of finance," said Associate Warden Ross Dykes. "Because there are so many more condemned male inmates, San Quentin can provide more facilities and programs."

But Craig Haney, a professor of psychology at UC Santa Cruz who has written extensively about prison conditions, said he "comes to the exact opposite conclusion as the prison." Because there is only one condemned woman, he said, it should be easier for prison officials to improve living conditions.

Haney contends that the Department of Corrections was unprepared to house McDermott. As a result, when McDermott arrived at Frontera, she was sent to Greystone, a 100-cell security housing unit designed for violent, abusive inmates. Because many of these women have assaulted staff or other prisoners, or sold narcotics while in prison, they are kept under highly restrictive "lock-down" conditions.

"Lumping together people with behavior problems with Death Row inmates--who may be model prisoners--is poor correctional policy," Haney said. "The two groups have very different needs and pressures."

While the other inmates may serve comparatively short terms in this prison-within-a-prison, a Death Row inmate could be there for years, or even decades, said Rebecca Jurado, an ACLU attorney in Los Angeles. Keeping women under "oppressive confinement," when men at San Quentin have much better living conditions, is unconstitutional, she said.

"The bottom line," she said, "is condemned men in California are treated better than condemned women."

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