San Quentin Prison Is No Place for Innocent Men (Op-Ed)

A former associate warden argues that if even one innocent inmate is behind bars, it’s every law-abiding citizen’s duty to set that prisoner free.

San Quentin Prison Crosses Paths With the Innocence March

Prisoners walk outside their cells at San Quentin state prison. San Quentin, California’s oldest correctional facility, contains the state’s only gas chamber and has housed a small, unjustifiable share of wrongfully convicted inmates. (Photo: Lucy Nicholson)

is an Associate Warden (Ret.), San Quentin State Prison.

Lawyers and supporters for the California Innocence Project are walking 660 miles from San Diego to Sacramento, California, to personally deliver clemency petitions to Governor Jerry Brown for the release of the California 12, a dozen inmates who have strong cases of factual innocence. Follow their progress on TakePart.


Upon entering the California criminal justice system in the mid-1970s, my developing mind went into high gear and soaked up the comments, actions and shared experiences from those around me.

“They wouldn’t be here if they were not guilty.”

Convicted by a jury and sentenced by a judge, they are where they belong I was told.

Okay, I said. I learned that the street urchins from Oxnard and hookers from Alameda County were simply numbers in a caseload. 

“And drugs are gonna be a big problem for us too.”

No doubt, I affirmed.

The advancing drug war of the ’80s, which we are still fighting internally and internationally 30 years later, forced the prison system to grow and grow. Gangs, guns, drugs and demands from the electorate resulted in more incarcerations. The corrections population jumped from 25,000 to more than 200,000 supervised inmates and parolees in about two decades. The criminal justice system was a force to be reckoned with politically and economically. And I fully benefitted from this expansion. 

“They can’t escape.  They belong here.”

Okay.

“They’re guilty.”

Of course.

“Punish them.”

“Guilty,” I proclaimed as another convict was found responsible for violating the rules of confinement, adding that his stay in prison would be extended by 30 days, four months or a year depending on the circumstances.

I loved my job. An endless supply of burglars, drug addicts, robbers and Death Row killers would keep me busy for at least 30 years. They wouldnt be here if they were not guilty, I thought. They belong here, I thought.

Some very, very bad boys and girls are in our prisons. And they do belong there. The one or two or 12 or 200 cases of wrongful conviction are not a significant number given the total numbers. But if that number were to include you or a loved one, you’d be fighting hard to get out.

And they did. Most of them, anyway. Some very, very bad boys and girls are behind bars.

Activating new prisons, supervising large numbers of personnel and specialized response teams, overseeing thousands of inmates and dealing with life behind bars exposed me to the worst of human nature—as well as some of the best. In time, I found myself training staff and trying to define how complex a society it was we worked in every day. How very complex it was indeed, people being people and, well, convicts are people too.

In the mid-’90s I received a telephone call from the warden directing me to have an inmate moved to the release gate immediately. “And don’t let him get hurt,” he said.

How odd, I thought.

Mission accomplished, I learned that the inmate had been ordered released because the court had overturned his sentence based upon a wrongful conviction. How very odd, I thought.

Around the same time, the Innocence Project was founded and caught my attention for work in the area of claims of wrongful convictions and DNA research.

Inmate appeals and court orders continued to cross my desk. With rare exception, the imates were denied. From 2005 to 2006, saw the beginning of DNA samples being collected from all inmates in the system.

Fascinated by the dots being connected between cold cases around the state and firm DNA evidence being discovered in lockers of various agencies, it became clear that this tool would allow victims to find closure even after many years. Suspects were identified and returned to court to face new charges.  However, DNA testing also opened many holes in the system by identifying important evidentiary issues that had been swept to the side by some agencies as well as by prosecutors and the courts.

As the findings of evidence mismanagement, perjured testimony and fresh reviews of original evidence supported their appeals, inmate claims of wrongful conviction began to be upheld. 

I am firm in belief that we have the best criminal-justice system available. It is not foolproof. There are flaws at all levels that we, collectively, have a responsibility to work toward improving. With this in mind, we must acknowledge that there are innocent people being housed behind the fences and walls of our criminal justice facilities. Maybe not too many of them, and perhaps for some of us on the outside, this limited number of locked-up innocents is a simple and acceptable risk we take for the system we have.  But for me, as we identify those falsely convicted inmates, the faster we can resolve questions of their convictions and walk them out of the system, the better off we will be as a society. 

The students, professors and administrators of the California Innocence Project have a tremendous role to play in this process. They are taking on a major failure of our system by working to correct the wrongs and bringing to light cases requiring the attention of society and the courts. The Innocence March currently making the walk from San Diego to Sacramento gives us the opportunity to take pause and listen with open minds and willful attention to the cases it presents. 

Some very, very bad boys and girls are in our prisons. And they do belong there. The one or two or 12 or 200 cases of wrongful conviction are not a significant number given the total numbers.

But if that number were to include you or a loved one, you’d be fighting hard to get out. And if this were the case, you would be glad to know there are people working through the California Innocence Project to help the innocent.

Do you think America’s criminal justice procedures need more fail-safe systems? Explain why or why not in COMMENTS.

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