Jeanne Woodford: Former San Quentin Warden Is an Anti-Death Penalty Activist

Longtime Department of Corrections executive carried out four executions as head of the prison: She hopes they will be the last.

Former San Quentin warden Jeanne Woodford has seen more of the death penalty than most people, and she wants to see it gone. (Photo: Courtesy Death Penalty Focus)

Oct 30, 2012· 2 MIN READ
Matt Fleischer is a TakePart contributor who was awarded a Fund for Investigative Journalism grant for his series “Dangerous Jails.”

Jeanne Woodford knows a little something about the death penalty. When she began her career in 1978 as a correctional officer at California’s San Quentin prison, fresh out of Sonoma State University with a criminal justice degree, California had just re-enacted its death penalty law.

“When I started, there were six inmates on Death Row,” she tells TakePart. “I watched that number grow to 700 in a short time.”

Thirty-four years after her hire, Woodford says, “A couple of the original six [Death Row inmates] are still there. One just died of natural causes.”

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Few people have Woodford’s historical perspective on the issue of capital punishment. She worked her way up the ladder at San Quentin, and was eventually named the facility’s warden in 1999. During that tenure, she oversaw the executions of four inmates. She later became Director of the California Department of Corrections.

Only 13 California Death Row inmates have been executed since 1978. The ranks of Death Row, however, have swollen to the thousands—costing taxpayers an estimated $184 million a year more than if these prisoners were serving life sentences.

Using economic realities as one argument against capital punishment, anti-death penalty advocates are hoping to outlaw the ultimate punitive sentence in California with the passage of Proposition 34 next week. Woodford counts herself among those advocates.

“People ask me all the time if there is an innocent man on San Quentin’s death row. I answer, ‘I just don’t know.’ I think it’s realistic to be concerned.”

“Being a woman in what was a male-dominated field, you had to have facts to back up what you were saying,” says Woodford. “In meetings, if you just said, ‘Here’s what I think,’ everyone would keep talking. But if I did research and said, ‘Here’s what Warden X wrote,’ who was a man, everyone would stop. You need a highly regarded resource before people would pay attention. It taught me to get the best science and information available—to be such a fact-oriented kind of person. You really have to apply the science of what works. And the death penalty simply does not.”

Given her managerial experience at both San Quentin and the top of the Department of Corrections, Woodford cites the cost of the death penalty as her primary rationale in opposing it. “I often hear people erroneously talk about how they oppose the death penalty in principle, but they don’t want to pay to keep murderers in prison for the rest of their lives. They don’t understand that it costs far more to execute them.”

Those extra costs come at the expense of the rest of the criminal justice system.

Police officers are being laid off,” says Woodford. “Forty-six percent of homicides go unsolved. We have thousands of rape kits lying in storage because we don’t have the lab resources to investigate all of them in a timely fashion. The death penalty is based on the idea of retribution. But can we really afford that?”

Behind the financial cost, however, is the emotional toll—on families as well as the civil servants charged with carrying out the executions.

“It’s an unbelievably difficult process,” says Woodford. “Some family members come to the prison, only to see a last-minute stay of execution. It’s very painful.

“Then there’s the inmate’s family: They’re not criminals.

“After each execution, someone on my staff would inevitably ask something like ‘Did we make the world safer today?’ No one ever answered because we knew the answer was ‘no.’ ”

Woodford likens the executions she carried out to assisted suicide (which, incidentally, is illegal in California), feeling that many Death Row inmates were tired of their prison stays and wanted to be put out of their misery.

In some ways, Woodford is thankful. She doesn’t suspect she presided over the executions of anyone falsely convicted. That doesn’t mean, however, that she isn’t concerned.

“People ask me all the time if there is an innocent man on San Quentin’s Death Row. I answer, ‘I just don’t know.’ I think it’s realistic to be concerned. DNA evidence is available in less than 15 percent of capital cases. When you have a solution, life-without-parole sentences, that’s a very real solution, why would you continue with the death penalty?”

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