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San Quentin's North Segregation – the 'Penthouse' of death row

Nancy Mullane

California has the largest death row population in the United States, with 727 men and women living in four condemned housing units. All 20 women sentenced to death are housed at the Central California Women’s Facility south of Fresno. All 707 men are housed in three separate death row units inside San Quentin State Prison, just north of San Francisco.

There’s the Adjustment Center, where condemned inmates considered to be the most dangerous in the state are housed. Then there’s the massive East Block, where more than 500 men sentenced to death are incarcerated. And then there’s the North Segregation Unit.

To get inside San Quentin’s “North Seg” as a reporter is not easy. It took years of prison reporting and months of negotiations with the deputy press secretary inside the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation to get them to consider giving one reporter access. In the end it would take a nod from the Secretary of the CDCR, Matthew Cate to grant authorization.

KALW’s Nancy Mullane recently became the first reporter in a decade to take the elevator from San Quentin’s ground level to North Block’s exclusive sixth floor to see what life is like on this most exclusive death row.

Condemned row

I’m walking with Lieutenant Sam Robinson, San Quentin’s Public Information Officer, to an ominous cage at the end of a long walkway. The words “Condemned Row” are etched overhead.

Robinson reaches for a phone at the side of the cage.

“Drop the bucket,” he says into the receiver.

“What does that mean?” I ask.

“Drop the elevator,” Robinson translates. “North Segregation is actually six stories up.”

The structure was built in 1934, Robinson says, to house all of the state’s inmates sentenced to death. But today, it only hosts small percentage of all of California’s 727 condemned inmates. The vast majority live in San Quentin’s East Block. The most violent are housed in the maximum security Adjustment Center a few hundred feet away.

An officer opens a door on the other side of the ominous cage, unlocks it and stands to the side. Robinson points to a nearby door.

“That door there leads directly… is the pathway directly into the gas chamber,” he says.

Just inside the door, an elevator stands open. It goes to only two floors: one and six. We get inside and take a slow ride up. When we reach the top, we step out to a hallway. On the right, doors lead to offices. On the left, a series of locked gates lead to one floor with 68 cells.

On the side of the gates, officers move around easily, alert. On the other side of the locked gates, inmates move just as easily among themselves out in the corridor.

“So this is death row,” I say.

“This is death row,” says Robinson. “This is where the original death row was situated. As you can see, there are 68 cells down this corridor, in which the inmates who live in this facility, they’re walking pretty freely in here in North Seg.”

“How long are they out of their cells like that?” I ask.

Robinson says the inmates are released from their cells at 7am and stay out until about 1:30pm. I ask to take a photograph of the ring of keys. The officers laugh and say no.

“We’d have to re-key the whole facility,” Robinson explains.

One of the keys on his ring opens the double-gated sally port that blocks the entrance to the corridor of cells.

We head up some stairs to the recreation yard.

On the yard

At the top of the steps, the door opens out to the roof and a beautiful west-facing view of Mount Tamalpais. We follow an officer toward a large fenced area. The sides are covered in long sheets of galvanized steel, making it impossible to see inside.

Credit Nancy Mullane
Stairs in San Quentin's North Segregation

We turn the far corner past two officers holding rifles. A few feet away, some two-dozen mostly middle aged and older inmates dressed in white shorts and t-shirts are standing around, talking. Over by a basketball hoop, a few men are playing a game.

“These guys are the most compliant condemned inmates that we have here at this facility, so they get tier time,” says Robinson.

A few of the men walk over. They’re curious and want to know who I am and why I am looking into their recreation yard. After identifying myself, I ask if anyone would like to tell me about North Seg. Curtis Ervin, a man wearing wire-rimmed glasses walks over. He was convicted in 1991 for a murder for hire.

“This particular program is not a true reflection of the entire death row because this is, quote unquote, an honor program," says Ervin. “There are more privileges than East Block.”

There’s a waiting list to get into North Seg, Ervin explains, and you can’t have any write-ups.

An officer signals that it’s time for the men to return to the sixth floor and the cells below the roof. Inmates playing basketball put on their shirts. Others grab a book or towel and walk down a long caged walkway to the far end of the roof and through a door to a set of stairs. 

A few minutes after the men have been moved off the roof, we follow them back down the stairs to the cellblock, where the inmates are walking around together on the floor outside their cells. They are taking showers and making calls on the wall phones.

An officer yells out that it’s time for all of the inmates to return to their cells for lock up. Without hesitating all of the men turn and go. After all the cell doors have been locked, Robinson walks with me down the tier so I can talk to the inmates about their lives on North Seg.

I stop at the cell of Richard Farley. He was convicted in 1991 of seven counts of murder and sentenced to death by a superior court judge. Standing inside his cell, up close to the door, he tells me he is diabetic. He says he’s worried that voters may pass the California initiative converting all death sentences to life in prison without the possibility of parole. If that happens, he’s worried the medical care he’ll receive out in the general population won’t be as good as what he’s had on death row.

“If I lose my feet, I don’t care to live anymore,” says Farley. “That’s my concern.”

Farley says he’s been living on North Segregation since 1992 and in this cell since 1993. I ask him what it’s like to live up here on this exclusive death row.

“I get my laundry done; I have clothes to wear; I get my meals,” Farley begins. “In return for that, I give up access to computers. I give up iPhones. It would be a lot better if we had a job. I’m a programmer. I could do something constructive.”

I move on and meet Douglas Mickey. In 1980, he was convicted of two first-degree murders, sentenced to death, and has been living on North Seg since 1983.

He’s covered his light with colored paper to reduce the glare. He says he sleeps on the floor and uses his bed for a desk – and like the country boy he was, he finds ways to adapt to his surroundings.

He reaches down and lifts a small, six-inch macraméd bonsai tree and holds it up to the light. Mickey says prison is prison, whether the sentence is death or life without the possibility of parole.

Credit Nancy Mullane
Douglas Mickey holds up a bonsai tree he keeps in his cell.

“The hardest part for anybody, whether you’re on death row or here for two weeks, is if somebody out there on the streets, one of your loved ones, is suffering a crisis and you’re stuck here and can’t do anything to help them,” says Mickey. “That’s the hardest part of prison. Period.”

Currently, there’s a moratorium on executions in the state – so there are no executions scheduled – but Mickey says over the years, he’s faced 21 different death dates.

Before heading back to the sally port, I stop by the last cell at the end of the tier. Curtis Ervin is playing his guitar, the sounds filling the tier. In 2000, the California Supreme Court upheld his death penalty. Ervin and his attorney are litigating the case on habeas corpus in the U.S. District Court, claiming innocence. If the court refuses his appeal, and Prop 34 does not pass, Ervin’s music will only be heard on death row until he is executed.

Tune into Crosscurrents next Monday at 5pm for the next installment of Nancy Mullane’s series on reporting from inside California’s prisons. We’ll go inside the Protective Housing Unit at Corcoran State Prison. 

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.