California to Shut Down Largest Death Row in US

Newsom administration plans to transfer inmates from San Quentin to other prisons
By Newser Editors and Wire Services
Posted Jan 31, 2022 6:15 PM CST
California Plans to Get Rid of Death Row
The entrance to the east block of death row at San Quentin State Prison.   (AP Photo/Eric Risberg, File)

(Newser) – California Gov. Gavin Newsom, who three years ago placed a moratorium on executions, now is moving to dismantle the US' largest death row by moving all condemned inmates to other prisons within two years. Turning the section at San Quentin State Prison into a "positive, healing environment" is the stated goal. "We are starting the process of closing death row to repurpose and transform the current housing units into something innovative and anchored in rehabilitation," corrections department spokeswoman Vicky Waters tells the AP. San Quentin’s never-used $853,000 execution chamber is in a separate area of the prison, and there are no plans to repurpose that area, Waters says.

California, which last carried out an execution in 2006, is one of 28 states that maintain death rows, along with the US government, according to the Death Penalty Information Center. While other states like Illinois have abolished executions, California is merging its condemned inmates into the general prison population with no expectation that any will face execution anytime in the near future. Newsom, a Democrat, imposed a moratorium on executions in 2019 and shut down the state’s execution chamber at San Quentin, north of San Francisco. Now his administration is turning on its head a 2016 voter-approved initiative intended to speed up executions by capitalizing on one provision that allowed inmates to be moved off death row.

Corrections officials began a voluntary two-year pilot program in January 2020 that as of Friday had moved 116 of the state’s 673 condemned male inmates to one of seven other prisons that have maximum security facilities and are surrounded by lethal electrified fence. Under the state’s transfer program, condemned inmates moved to other prisons can be housed in solitary or disciplinary confinement if officials decide they cannot be safely housed with others, although they are supposed to be interspersed with other inmates. Inmates on death row are housed one to a cell, but the transferred inmates can be housed with others if it’s deemed safe. "There have been no safety concerns, and no major disciplinary issues have occurred," Waters says. (Read more death row stories.)

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