When Prop. 66, the ballot initiative designed to overhaul the state’s death penalty system, was passed by California voters in November 2016, one of the lesser-known elements of the measure necessitates that many of the 700 plus men on the state’s death row who had traditionally been housed at San Quentin, must be rehoused at certain other prisons throughout in the state.
(This applies to only condemned men. California women who are on death row are housed at the Central California Women’s Facility in Chowchilla, and are not eligible to be rehoused under Prop. 66, because Chowchilla is the most secure of the state’s women’s prisons.)
Part of the purpose of this rehousing was the concept that, if the condemned men were moved to other appropriately secure prisons, which have more extensive programming than San Quentin’s death row, the men would be required to work, and at least 70 percent of their earnings would be passed along to the families of their victims.
The rehousing will also potentially save money for the state.
Back when the measure was being written, one of its best-known authors, Kent Scheidegger, who is also the director of the Criminal Justice Legal Foundation, a right-wing think tank that rigorously opposes most criminal justice reform, was reportedly enthusiastic about the relocation idea, because he felt it would defeat one argument coming from anti-death penalty activists about the high price of continuing to send more and more people to San Quentin’s aging and expensive-to-run death row.
“Our response was, well, they don’t need to be housed there,” Scheidegger told the AP. “It was more to defuse one of the contrary arguments.”
“Historically, state law mandated that male prisoners on condemned status be housed at San Quentin State Prison and women condemned inmates be housed at Central California Women’s Facility,” the CDCR explained in an online statement. “Proposition 66, a ballot measure passed by California voters in 2016, allows prison officials to transfer condemned inmates to any state prison that provides the necessary level of security.”
First of all, the inmate must request the transfer. But for those condemned inmates who are approved as suitable for the move, in addition to being able to work, most reportedly will also be able to engage in whatever rehabilitative programs that their new prison home offers, as long as security concerns can be accommodated.
(The only prisons that are eligible to rehouse the men who now live on death row are surrounded by lethal electrified fences. Chowchilla is the state’s only women’s prison that is similarly fenced, which is why none of the women of death row are permitted to be similarly relocated.)
For and against
Justice advocates, while against the death penalty, are generally for the new program.
Interestingly, however, conservative pro-death penalty advocates are not at all happy with the soon-to-begin transfers of death row men to more rehabilitative environs.
Michael D. Rushford, who, like Scheidegger, is with the Criminal Justice Legal Foundation, wrote Thursday on the think tank’s blog, Crime & Consequences, that the upcoming moves will make life more dangerous for “corrections officers and other inmates.”
Former San Bernardino District Attorney Mike Ramos, co-chairman of the Proposition 66 committee that worked to get the measure passed, which means he presumably read the text of the ballot proposition, told the AP that the planned moves were a “slap in the face for victims.”
Similar critical messages exploded on Twitter when the news broke.
“After ordering the dismantling of the state’s newly built $853,000 execution chamber Gov. @GavinNewsom wants to transfer death row inmates into rehabilitation and work programs,” tweeted the CA Senate GOP Caucus on Friday, nevermind that it was the authors of the ballot measure, not the Governor, who precipitated the rehousing plan, which is now codified in law and thus requires the CDCR to follow through.
(Newsom did, of course, sign an indefinite moratorium on executions in California on March 13 of last year which he said will remain in force until he leaves office.)
The actual program
According to CDCR Press Secretary, Dana Simas, what they are calling the Condemned Inmate Transfer Pilot Program (CITPP), will first be done — as the name suggests — as a pilot endeavor, and the screening for the new initiative will be careful and rigorous.
“A designated classification committee will review’ the volunteer inmates’ case factors to determine their security, medical, psychiatric and program needs and consequently, their appropriate housing,” Simas said.
Among the case factors that will be taken into account are the inmate’s medical and mental health needs, their past behavior in prison, along with other issues such as “special housing needs, safety concerns, location to court proceedings, and notoriety.”
And, yes, there will be a variety of rehabilitative programs on offer to those who wind-up in the pilot.
What those programs might be will depend upon the prison. For instance, said Simas, the CITPP men will only be sent to certain Level 4 and Level 3 facilities. (Level 4 is the highest security category. Level 3 is the next highest.)
“Level 3 facilities have more programs than Level 4, she said.
Simas also said that the CDCR is mindful of the impact that this new program may have on some victims, but she added that the department’s Office of Victim and Survivor Rights and Services “is dedicated to giving crime victims and their families a voice,” on this and other issues.
When discussing the death penalty, pro and con, it seems relevant to mention that, since 1978, the year in which California’s voters reinstated the death penalty, five people on the state’s death row have been exonerated, according to the Death Penalty Information Center, a national non-profit organization serving the media and the public with analysis and information on issues concerning capital punishment.
Top photo of the dismantlement of the state’s death chamber is via Governor Gavin Newsom’s Facebook.