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The Adjustment Center: Where no one wants to go

In 1851, the government of the new state of California legalized executions. But it wasn’t until 1891 that the state legislature required all executions take place within the walls of one of the state’s prisons.

The state’s first legal execution by hanging took place March 3, 1893 at San Quentin State Prison. Sixty-year-old José Gabriel was convicted and sentenced to death for killing a farming couple near San Diego.

In 1972, the California Supreme Court ruled that under the state constitution, the death penalty was cruel and unusual punishment. As a result, 107 people condemned to death – including Sirhan Sirhan and Charles Manson – had their sentences converted to life in prison with the possibility of parole.

Capital punishment was reinstated in 1978. Thirteen people have been executed since then, while another 63 people have died while on death row, – including 21 people who committed suicide.

Today, we’ll join KALW’s Nancy Mullane inside San Quentin Prison’s Adjustment Center. It’s not only the first place men sentenced to death go before they are moved to the larger death row cell block inside San Quentin; it’s also where the state’s most violent death row inmates are held indefinitely in what is arguably the most secure facility in the state. No reporter has been inside the space in a decade.

Inside death row

I’m headed into San Quentin State Prison’s Adjustment Center with Lieutenant Sam Robinson to visit death row. 

This is how Robinson describes it:

“The Adjustment Center is a contained, enclosed unit. The staff inside the facility don’t have the ability to let themselves out to move freely throughout the rest of the facility. When they come to work every day, they’re locked into prison with 102 of the most dangerous, convicted felons we have here in the state of California."

To enter the Adjustment Center, we have go through something called a “sally port,” which seems like an airlock. Robinson describes it as the Adjustment Center’s drawbridge – a primary line of defense at the facility to prevent escapes. But first, I’m thoroughly searched and Robinson vouches for my credentials so I can get the invisible ink hand stamp Robinson jokingly calls my “get out of jail free card.”

After I’ve been processed, Robinson pulls open the gate to the sally port. We step inside, and he pulls the gate closed behind us with an ear popping clunk. We’re in a separated environment, with one side of the port closed and the other side open. I flash my ID to a man sitting behind bulletproof glass. Officers leaving the inmate side of prison at the end of their shift wait on the far side of the second locked gate. When the gate is remotely opened, we pass one another in the middle. 

Stepping out of the sally port we walk through a courtyard towards a long, off white, three story building with barred windows: the Adjustment Center.

After a few more checkpoints, we enter a wide hallway. Aside from an empty holding cell midway down the hall, there are no cellblocks or tiers in sight, like a hospital emergency room, the air is nervous, tense. Robinson’s voice tightens.  

A guard with stripes on his sleeve hands me a green security vest. Robinson explains, “This is a stab proof vest. Inside a prison we’re not necessarily worried a whole lot about people shooting at us. We’re more worried about inmates having little crude items they’ve manufactured to stab us or puncture us with so this vest here protects all your vital organs.”

I note that the vest only covers my chest, that I could still get stabbed in my neck or somewhere else.

“That’s a small area to protect as opposed to everything else,” Robinson reassures me.

Up on the wall in the Sergeant’s office, individual headshots of all 102 inmates in the center are arranged in line-up fashion according to the number of their cell. Some of the photographs have colored tags.

“The cards that are identified in yellow are condemned,” Robinson explains. “The ones that are white are administrative segregation.”

That means they aren’t condemned, but are considered too violent to be incarcerated in the prison’s general population. Often, it’s because they are strongly connected with a gang like the Aryan Brotherhood or the Crips.

“If you’re here in the Adjustment Center,” says Robinson, “you’re not functioning well anywhere else in this facility. And this is the highest security housing unit we have here in this facility.”

Some prisoners demand even more security, like leg restraints whenever guards move them outside their cell. This prevents them from violently kicking out at the prison staff. Robinson describes one particularly dangerous individual, whom he identifies by his cell number, 10C4.

“Over the course of the last couple of decades he’s successfully retired four of our staff in this facility due to assaults that he’s perpetrated on them. Those individuals were assaulted to the point where their injuries were extremely severe and they were never, ever able to return to duty.”

Unlike in some of the state’s more modern high security units, the Adjustment Center is older and does not provide gun coverage for officers walking the tier or past the cells. Robinson says this setup demands constant vigilance from the guards. One mistake, one second of distraction, could mean life or death – and not just for the guards.

“If [prisoners] don’t assault staff when given the opportunity, they will be disciplined by other inmates here in the facility,” Robinson says, even though they may not want to be violent. “But when you’re in the Adjustment Center if you want to live amongst the population, you have to do as the population order or dictate that you do.”

The Adjustment Center opened in 1960. Instead of having cell doors that open remotely, like the state’s more modern prisons, the solid cement cell doors here have to be opened by an officer with a key. Robinson says that makes officer safety a concern and communication between inmates difficult.

Before he was the public information officer, Robinson worked in the Adjustment Center for three years as a supervisor. I ask him what kind of attitude it takes to work in here.

“I’m an African American male, so it seemed like I would be offended by someone throwing out the N-word to me on a regular basis. Or it would seem like I would have some sensibility about that. But working here in the Adjustment Center, it just goes right over my head. I’ve been called that so much in this facility that it’s like saying blue or orange or whatever the case may be.”

Robinson says when he worked in the center, the cell doors were just bars and the inmates would throw feces and urine on officers – they called it “gassing”. But in 2004, prison officials made that impossible by removing the bars and replacing them with solid concrete fronts.

But that doesn’t mean there aren’t attacks on officers. In August,  two officers in the unit were stabbed repeatedly by an inmate with a crude knife. They were rushed to a local hospital for treatment, and have since returned to duty. Robinson tries to convey the level of vigilance the guards must maintain at all times.

“If our staff members aren’t paying attention, if you have someone that’s not a seasoned cop in here. If he’s not honed into their environment. If you slip up, they may try to grab your hand as you’re trying to handcuff and pull you inside the cell and as they pull you inside you never know what’s on the opposite side of the wall there and you could be subject to slashed or cut or even having your arm broken.”

Before we leave the Adjustment Center’s office, I talk with Sergeant Paul Taylor. He’s a big, strong man, with a badge pinned just above a whistle on the front of his starched uniform. Today he is in charge of the unit.

I wonder about his life outside of San Quentin. I ask him if he’s married, and whether he has a family. He hesitates. Officers aren’t supposed to share information about their private lives. Yes, he says. He does. I ask him if they understand the risks he’s taking.

“I took on this profession before I had a family,” he says. “They understand. My kids understand I work in a bad place with bad people and the people who work here is doing good for society.”

Outside the office, Robinson and I walk down a short hall. A dozen green puncture proof vests hang on hooks ready to grab. We’re now on the south side of the Adjustment Center, just outside the sally port.

Robinson describes the lay out of the building:

“There are three levels of tiers here in this facility and they’re all identical to this. As we are just standing here and we are maybe 15 feet away from the nearest cell. Just standing here you can listen down the tier how people are communicating pretty easily back and forth here even behind those solid doors.”

I stand alone, listen, and watch.  Down the empty hall, I see a white envelope on a clear line of filament slide out from under one of the solid cell doors. It sits there for a moment, then another white envelope attached to another line of clear filament shoots out and over the filament of the first.

While I’m watching the envelopes slide up and down the floor of the tier, Robinson walks up.

“Fishing,” Robinson explains.

Fishing is how inmates pass secret information, sometimes even weapons. Robinson tells me how the inmates will put envelopes on a string, slide it under the half-inch crack under the door,  and swing it down the hallway. Often, inmates will help pass the envelope along to its intended recipient.

By now, there are five envelopes sliding along the smooth cement floor. Robinson turns from the tier and waves Taylor over.

“Hey Paul, somebody just fished something to cell number two,” he calls over. 

In seconds,  a team of six officers appear. Canisters of pepper spray and handcuffs hang from their thick belts. As they prepare to enter the tier, the officers place dark protective glasses over their eyes and disposable gloves on their hands.

As the first black steel gate slides back, Robinson orders me to turn and follow him out of the area. I hesitate. I want to watch, but I’m not allowed.

Officers direct me out a back door, to a yard of cages. There Robinson explains to me that anything passed between cells is considered contraband, and all contraband material needs to seized immediately.

“You just never know what was on those items that was retrieved from that cell,” he says. “And so essentially our staff went down the tier to remove that individual from the cell.”

When I ask him why I can’t witness the treatment, Robinson tells me that the space is too small, and if something goes wrong we would be in the way.

“If he comes out and you and I are there, there’s no shield that’s around him. There is no solid door that is in front of him. He could spit on you or I or kick or whatever the case may be. So for your protection and for my protection, cause I’m not all geared up other than my vest today, as you are, it’s just best that we be removed from that and allow the staff on the tier to do what they need to do.”

Beyond the cell

Peering out through security fencing, I see two sorts of recreation yards.

On the far side, a dozen inmates are shooting hoops in one of two group yards, each the size of a basketball court. Guards armed with rifles observe from a walkway above.

A little closer are 32 walk alone yards. They’re cages the size of small living rooms. Inside each cage a single inmate dressed in white boxer shorts and t-shirt stands or sits alone. Robinson says these yards are for inmates who either can’t get along with others,  or have been violent on the group yard.

It’s a hot day and there’s no shade. Robinson says it doesn’t matter to the inmates. “Whether it be sunny skies out here or there be rain, and I believe if we had snow here at San Quentin, this yard would always run. These guys always come out and take advantage of their time out here.”

Most days, inmates are alone inside a cell for 24 hours. Three times a week, they get three hours outside.

We head back into the Adjustment Center. By now the officers have finished removing the inmate from his cell and searching it for the illegal message.

At this point, I am hoping to be able to actually see inside one cell in the Adjustment Center. It was one of the conditions I had requested as part of my press access to the facility.

After all, it’s been nearly a decade since any reporter has seen inside a cell in the Adjustment Center. But as I press the officers to let me see the inside of just one empty cell, so that I can accurately describe the condition, Robinson says “absolutely not.”

“I understand your concerns, but again, we have security concerns in here relative to allowing people who are not peace officers down the tier here the in adjustment center. It’s not about something bad happening on the tier we’re on, ‘cause we have the staff here with us. It’s about something bad happening here in the facility and losing those precious response seconds for our staff to get there.”

“You don’t have one empty cell?” I ask.

“We may have empty cells but you and I can’t just go down a tier ourselves.”

Robinson never lets me see a cell, but he does offer to let me interview one of the inmates coming back inside.

An alarm sounds to signal the end of the inmates’ outdoor time. 

A group of officers holding steel batons and wearing protective sunglasses pass through the back sally port and approach the inmates in the standalone cages. While the officers watch from outside the cages, the inmates take off their t-shirts and boxer shorts one by one and bend over to be strip-searched. After that, they get dressed and shove their hands through a small slot in the gate to be handcuffed.  

An officer opens the gate to the cage and, holding tight to each inmates’ elbow, escorts them toward the center.

Robinson explains the guards’ carefully choreographed movements.

As promised, Robinson allows me to stand nearby. An officer hands me a face shield to put over my eyes and tells me I have to wear it when I’m in contact with the inmates.

As the officers transport the inmates back to their cells they pause in front of me and ask if they would like to be interviewed. After a few moments, each inmate turns away.

Taylor explains that this is part of the inmates’ “code” in the Adjustment Center, that if one of them talks, it could be bad news the next time they’re out in the yard.

But as we’re talking, one inmate agrees to be interviewed.

I follow the tall, lean, handcuffed man as he is led down the hall by an officer holding tight to his elbow, another officer leading the way, and Sergeant Taylor monitoring the situation.

The inmate, Carmen Ward, is placed inside the black holding cell in the hallway. His handcuffs stay on. Robinson says Ward was sent to death row in 1991 for the 1987 gang-related shooting of a 15-year-old and the attempted murder of a 21 year old. Then, in 2005, just before the execution of Stanley Tookie Williams, Ward and about a dozen other inmates on death row threatened to kill staff in the prison as retribution.

They were all moved to the Adjustment Center, where Ward remains today. When I ask him about his life here, Ward doesn’t hold back his feelings.

“Conditions here in the Adjustment Center are horrendous, unfair, biased,”
 he says.

I try to get an idea about his daily life, so I ask him about the food.

“Prison food. I mean I’ve been here for 22 years and the food is pretty much run of the mill. I can predict the meal a week ahead of time.”

I ask him what Thursday’s meal is. He doesn’t miss a beat.

“Thursday is SOS potatoes and a biscuit. Gravy with meat.”


“Tuesday will be um…waffles with some eggs. Scrambled eggs.”

I ask him how the Adjustment Center is different from other kinds of imprisonment.

“It is restricted in everything you do,” he says. “The reception of a magazine is predicated on receiving one to give one…traipsing around this building I must wear these shoes. Nobody ever explained why. In the rain. Through puddles.”

Ward is wearing white-bottomed sandals with a black crisscross over his instep.

Ward continues: “What the Adjustment Center is for is for a brief punishment. Prison is violent. I get that. But at some point there has to be some fairness. People have to be told when their punishment ends.”

Ward says living in the Adjustment Center is being on death row without the opportunities given to inmates in the prison’s other two condemned units. On East Block, he says, at least they have access to education programs.

“You have nothing here,” says Ward. “Zip. You don’t even have a library program here. There’s a brand new library built in the San Quentin and we’re not even allowed access to it. Bring some fairness. There’s a process called a 608.”

The 608s are a set of regulations that governs the inmates on death row at San Quentin. Part of it includes an assessment chart for how long inmates should stay in the Adjustment Center. But according to Ward, the 608s don’t help him at all. I ask him if he’s tried to get out.

“Yes. I’ve tried everything. I’ve written it up. But I’ve exceeded the time for the most horrendous crimes here. You have 102 cells here. There are close to 80 people the 608 doesn’t apply to. No one has said why. Good time means absolutely nothing. There aren’t even criteria we have to reach to leave.”

Robinson tells me there is a process for Ward to follow to get release from the center, but so far he hasn’t followed that procedure.

After agreeing to have his photo taken, Ward is ready to return to his cell. I tentatively offer to shake his hand, but he refuses.

“They won’t let you do that. They would rustle me down to the ground.”

As I step out of the Adjustment Center’s caged sally port and into the prison’s general population – where inmates are walking around, heading to work or the canteen – I take a deep breath. There’s prison, and there’s places like the Adjustment Center. I still don’t know what a cell inside the center looks, how big it is, what the walls are like and how it feels to be inside one. I do know it’s not a place anyone ever wants to go. 

Next week, Nancy Mullane will take us inside the largest of San Quentin’s three death rows, the East Block, where 537 condemned men live in single cells, 23 hours per day.

Crosscurrents San Quentin
Nancy Mullane develops, reports, and produces feature stories for This American Life, National Public Radio, and KALW. She is the author of the book Life After Murder: Five Men in Search of Redemption.