SAN QUENTIN -- Controversial, complicated, and at times contradictory -- life on California’s Death Row is in many ways a mystery. As voters prepare to decide the fate of the death penalty in November, FOX40 was the only local TV station allowed access to San Quentin State Penitentiary, California’s only death row for male inmates.
The home of one of the most breathtaking views of the San Francisco Bay is also home to 700 convicted murderers awaiting execution -- just one of many paradoxes behind the walls of San Quentin State Penitentiary.
It’s hard to argue there’s not something charming about San Quentin’s old world feel. Touring the 19th century prison at times seemed like walking through a movie set or prison museum… surreal.
That feeling was short lived.
The stab proof vests the FOX40 crew had to wear were actually our second reality check. The first was the "no hostage" policy we had to sign, warning that if an inmate took us captive, the guards would not bargain for us.
We were part of an international group of journalists allowed rare access to five cell blocks where male condemned inmates live starting with the most restrictive, the adjustment center -- the sometimes temporary, sometimes long-term home to inmates with behavioral issues. The spit shield we had to wear when approaching those men was reality check No. 3.
Yard time in the kennel-like exercise cages of the adjustment center isn’t much, but at least there’s fresh air. Adjustment center inmates spend as many as 24 hours a day in a cell with a concrete door, getting to use the exercise cages on average three days a week.
“What am I supposed to do for the rest of my life, just sit here?” asked inmate Jamar Tucker.
Incarcerated on and off since he was a teen, a deadly home invasion in 2005 got Tucker life in prison, killing his cell mate five years later got him a death sentence.
“I don’t regret nothing,” he said.
After six years on death row, the 34-year-old seemed to welcome his execution.
“I’m ready to go,” he claimed.
There is a long line ahead of him. California has only executed 13 prisoners since 1978. Leaving about 600 inmates in the standard death row cell blocks.
The prison didn’t let us prearrange interviews, but we were allowed to approach anyone we came across.
Richard Allen Davis, who kidnapped Polly Klass from her home nearly 16 years ago, ignored us.
A few cells down, Douglas Clark, also known as the "Sunset Strip Killer," wanted to talk. Thirty years later he insists he’s innocent of the six L.A. area murders that put him on death row. His accomplice, Carol Bundy, avoided death row by testifying against him.
“I’d have killed the b---- if I had a chance,” said Clark.
Notorious or not, inmates spend on average more than 20 years on death row. At this point, they are more likely to die of illness, suicide or old age than execution. And that’s the real death row reality check.
“I think they’re just waiting on their ass for me to die of old age,” said Charles Case.
Also known as the "Midday Rapist," the 75-year-old has been on death row for two decades after a Father’s Day double murder in Sacramento.
Our four-hour tour came to an end without ever seeing the place where condemned prisoners are supposed to meet theirs. The lethal injection chamber is the entire purpose of death row -- yet it hasn’t been used in a decade, and of the 747 prisoners condemned to die, not one is scheduled to have that sentence carried out, which is the ultimate San Quentin Penitentiary paradox.
Executions are on hold in California until at least November while a new lethal injection protocol is developed.
It’s unclear if that will happen before voters go to the polls to decide whether to speed up the death penalty process or abolish capital punishment altogether.
For more on the dueling death penalty initiatives, see FOX40’s special report on the death penalty ballot measures.
Below is a photo gallery of death row inmates who committed crimes in the Sacramento region.