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Walking death row at San Quentin State Prison

Nancy Mullane

San Quentin State Prison has four massive cell blocks, each identified by their cardinal direction: north, south, east, and west. Of the four, only one houses inmates sentenced to death. None of the cell blocks have been visited by a reporter since 2007.

KALW’s Nancy Mullane asked Matthew Cate, the secretary of the California Department of Corrections, for press access to death row. Eventually, Cate agreed to allow Mullane to go inside all three of San Quentin’s death rows. Last week we visited the adjustment center, where new death row inmates begin their sentence and where the most violent are kept indefinitely.

Today, we go to East Block, which houses 537 men facing execution in the state.

Into the East Block

Before entering East Block, public information officer Sam Robinson and I first have to pass through a walled sally port. Inside the entrance to the cellblock, there’s a large rotunda with high arched windows.

Robinson leads me through two ancient-looking steel doors toward a set of black gates. An officer unlocks the gate to the left and we head for the tiers of cells. As we approach the cells, we pass a table piled up with opened and unopened letters that have been sent to the inmates. Mail sent to prisoners is read and reviewed before it is delivered. A sign on the wall in bright red letters warns prisoners that feeding the birds will result in a CDC 116, or disciplinary write up. There are no birdmen on death row.

Robinson tells me all condemned inmates at San Quentin are evaluated and classified in one of two categories.

“Here on death row, we classify them as grade A and grade B,” he says. “Grade A are individuals who are programming and follow our rules, for the most part. Grade B are the individuals who are the opposite of that, who are non-programmers or gang affiliates or whatever the case may be.”

Robinson says that all inmates on east block are grade A. As he talks, we make our way around the end of the block to see what looks like endless rows of cells. There are fifty-seven on each tier and the double sided block is five tiers high, making a total of more than 500 cells. Looking down the first tier, a half dozen wheelchairs are parked on the polished cement walkway, waiting.

“East Block structurally mirrors the majority of our housing units at San Quentin,” he explains, “They’re all five stories high and the dimensions of the cells are four and a half feet by ten feet, eight inches.”

That means each cell is 48 square feet and seven feet, seven inches tall – about the size of a walk-in closet.  From inside their individual cells, the inmates can look out through a row of black bars, a sheet of perforated metal, a railing and forty feet of open space to a wall of windows that fill the cavernous space with natural light and air.

“Here in East Block, these guys are confined to their cells for the most part of the day with the exception of the five hours a day they are allowed for recreation yard activities,” Robinson says.

“Five hundred people have recreation access five hours a day?” I ask.

He told me they did.

“Showers?” I ask.

“They shower every other day,” he says – and not in a community shower but a single shower.

“For the most part, your neighbor may not be compatible with you,” he tells me. “The guys we house next to each other could be, in theory, mortal enemies and so we may not be able to put them in the same space together and so their showers are individualized showers also.”

While I’m standing listening to Robinson, I watch as white sheets of paper fly up in the air from a first floor cell to one on the second defying gravity. These messages passed from one inmate to another are called ‘kites,’ and they’re considered contraband by prison authorities.

“See there goes another one! It’s really like kites, see there it goes!” I point.

“There it goes,” Robinson says.

We walk down toward the cells. Pushed up against some of the cell doors are shoulder high, A-frame metal structures with telephones attached.

Robinson tells me, “Because these guys can’t exit their cells freely, we actually have a phone apparatus on wheels as we say and we push it in front of the individual cell, we leave his food port open and he is allowed to extend his hand out, grab the receiver and place a call.”

I ask Robinson if I can interview the inmates in their cells. He says I can interview any inmate willing to talk to me…

Below are the three interviews that Mullane conducted in the East Block region of San Quentin.

Walter Cook. In 1994, a jury convicted him of three counts of murder and sentenced him to death.

NANCY MULLANE: So you have a phone in front of your cell. Why?

WALTER COOK: To make legal calls. Talk to family. Friends.

MULLANE: How often do you have access to the phone?

COOK: We get the phone every other day. Once in the morning and once at night.

MULLANE: And how long have you been here?

COOK: Twenty years.

MULLANE: Twenty years? In this cell?

COOK: Not in this cell. Different cells.

MULLANE: But all here at Quentin?

COOK: Yep.

MULLANE: So you were sentenced in... what would that be?

COOK: Ninety-two.

MULLANE: That’s a long time. What’s it like?

COOK: Well, I can tell you this. We don’t get no free cable, like, or we get all these extravagant meals. We get regular meals like everybody else in the mainline. Nothing special. We get everything everybody else gets. And you know we pay more in here for TV than they do on the street. A 13-inch TV for us cost like $250.

[Cook offers to lift his TV to show me. I try to take a photograph through the little holes in the sheet of metal covering his cell.]

Credit Nancy Mullane
San Quentin State Prison inmate Walter Cook is sentenced to the death penalty.

MULLANE: So let’s see, where’s the best hole. The holes are all the same. Ok. Right there.

[There isn’t enough light in his cell to take a photograph.]

MULLANE: Do you have any more light in there? That’s it?

[He flips the switch on the fluorescent wall light to high.]

MULLANE: Okay, hold it down so I can see your face.

COOK: Two hundred and fifty dollars and it’s not even name brand.

MULLANE: What name brand would you have wanted?

COOK: Sony or something if I'm going to pay $250.

MULLANE: Do you have family?

COOK: Yep.

MULLANE: Do you have children?

COOK: Yeah.

MULLANE: How many?


MULLANE: How old are they?

COOK: Twenty and twenty-one.

MULLANE: So do they come visit you?


MULLANE: How often?

COOK: Probably like once every other week.

MULLANE: So you actually have contact?

COOK: Yep.

MULLANE: Is that important to you?

COOK: Yeah. You got to have contact with your family. If you don’t have contact with your family, you don’t have nothing. You got to have something to keep your sanity. We’re not like people portray us on the movies as crazy, deranged people. I get the impression from TV, you know, everybody is a child molester, rapist. Seem like that’s the stereotype for everybody here – that’s what they are. Even people that’s innocent. If you’re here, you got to be guilty, that’s not true.

MULLANE: Are you?

COOK: No. I’m not guilty.

MULLANE: You’re not guilty?

COOK: I’m not guilty.

MULLANE: You’re innocent.

COOK: Yeah.

MULLANE: You didn’t do it.


MULLANE: Are you sure?

COOK: I’m positive.

MULLANE: Ok. So you have a good attorney?

COOK: Yeah.

MULLANE: And you’ve been in here twenty years, so how far has your appeal gotten?

COOK: Its still in state court. That’s another thing that’s a misperception – that we’re delaying the process when it’s the courts delaying the process. They give the Attorney General all these extensions and extensions. When you want to move your case forward, it’s not on us. They want to tell the public they’re dragging their case, it’s not us. It’s the courts and the attorneys general that’s dragging it along.

MULLANE: I see. So how has it changed the time that you’re doing a death sentence from when you were sentenced to now?

COOK: There’s more programs, education, like, and mental health programs for the people who really do need it. And it’s more cleaner in here than it used to be when they had birds flying around and big old rats and stuff. 

[Mullane asks Cook about proposition  34, the statewide initiative that would convert death sentences to life in prison without the possibility of parole.]

COOK: Really it doesn’t matter to me one way or another because my whole purpose is to get all the way out of here, but some people that would give us life without – I don’t have nothing against that – but that’s not what I’m striving for. But for people – that’s their only shot – I feel that they should get that. That’s what all they can get.

MULLANE: So, if you were voting, how would you vote?

COOK: I wouldn’t vote for any death penalty because I wouldn’t put this on my worst enemy or anybody because you have a whole lot of people, every single day, they turn around and find this person is innocent, through DNA and such. So if you can’t really say whether this person did it or not you going to kill the person. You can’t come back from that.

MULLANE: So you would change it to life without even though you would lose some of your…

COOK: I don’t see playing God and having anybody get killed. You gotta understand they didn’t kill nobody – they just racking up more and more money and they canceling schools, medical programs for the handicapped people, death penalty not doing nobody no good. I look at it like this: if you close the schools, you’re going have people commit crimes cause they’re not going to have no education. It’s defeating the whole purpose.

MULLANE: But at the same time, if they do change to life without parole, if the voters pass that initiative, then some of that money that’s paying for your appeal would be given to the schools, that’s theoretical, but you would support that?

COOK: Yeah.

MULLANE: Even if it means you would lose?

COOK: Kids need education. I mean, I don’t want to see nobody here.

MULLANE: Well, I really appreciate you taking the time to talk to me.

COOK: All right. No problem.

As we walk away from Cook’s cell, I ask Robinson how he’s going to vote on Proposition 34.

Robinson telss me: “Unfortunately, I’m not able to be freely open with you and tell you how I’m going to vote. As a department we don’t take a stand either way on the initiative as it is.”

We continue on and stop at Demetrius Howard’s cell. A jury convicted Howard for the 1992 murder and attempted murder of a woman in San Bernardino and sentenced him to death

Inside his cell, Howard has covered the fluorescent light with colored paper, giving the dark space a warm glow. He’s also turned the surface of his bed into a desk and today, it’s covered with some pencil sketches he’s working on. Something emanating from the cell smells sweet.

Demetrius Howard.

NANCY MULLANE: Wow, you have nice incense. Is that incense?

DEMETRIUS HOWARD: No, it’s just oils.

MULLANE: That’s nice.

HOWARD: You know, you can’t let yourself lose your sense of your spiritualness and staying clean and staying fresh and keeping your spirit vibrant.

MULLANE: And that’s how you do it?

HOWARD: That’s part of it.

MULLANE: Essential oils.


MULLANE: How do you get them?

HOWARD: We’re allowed to order them. They allow us to order them through the different religious programs they have set up, so it’s something to keep you still connected to the world because you in an environment where you closed in and senses all kind of a variety of senses, so it’s good to keep  a balance.

MULLANE: How long have you been here?

HOWARD: I’ve been here 17 years.

MULLANE: Have you always been in East Block?

HOWARD: No, I’ve been back and forth to the Adjustment Center over the years. But I’ve been in east block primarily. The majority of my time.

MULLANE: So how does the Adjustment Center compare to East Block?

HOWARD: It compares very different. More freedoms over here, you know like phone calls, contact with your family, being able to have a variety of hobby programs, being able to hobby shop, you know, draw. Just being able to go out to the yard daily, having contact visits with your attorneys, family. It’s a big difference to your mind, your spirit.

MULLANE: So how are you feeling about the initiative that’s up before the voters in November the one that would change death sentences to life without parole?

HOWARD: Me? I’m constantly fighting for my freedom. You know my innocence.

MULLANE: You feel you’re innocent?

HOWARD: I know I’m innocent. It’s not something I feel. It’s factual.

[Howard says the appeals process is slow, tedious, and strenuous, but he remains confident that eventually he will be found innocent. And if Proposition 34 passes he says the following will happen.]

HOWARD: I don’t feel it’s to a lot of individuals benefit, because then they’ll be out without attorneys and being able to address their issues of being wrongly convicted. So it will be devastating in a lot of ways.

MULLANE: To go to life without.

HOWARD: Yeah. Because many of us have been here over decades – and that in itself is already a life sentence. It’s already a life ,ust being here for many years. So to go to another situation of a life sentence.

MULLANE: But you would have more freedoms. You’d be out on main yard, walking the yard, see the trees, the sky and the moon.

HOWARD: Yeah, but you still incarcerated. For me, to computer it in my mind for my certain situations, that’s like not even acceptable. My goals and objectives are beyond these walls, period. But I’m curious and interested to see what’s going to happen about the voters because I know that the death penalty is political.

[Losing his right to a state funded appeal won’t be the only adjustment Howard and other condemned inmates will face if the initiative passes. Instead of having a cell to themselves, they will have to share.]

HOWARD: That will be a big adjustment having a cellie!

MULLANE: But they say you adjust to what you have to adjust to.

HOWARD: With anything in life, you have to adapt to circumstances that you’re placed in whether by choice, or by force.

Justin Helzer. Seven years ago he was convicted and sentenced to death for the murder of five people, including the daughter of guitarist Elvin Bishop. A pink sign is attached to the gate of the last cell. It identifies the inmate as visually impaired. His name is Justin Helzer.


HELZER: I have a lot of medical problems.

MULLANE: I’m just doing a story on conditions on death row. What do you think about conditions on death row?

HELZER: Well, just speaking from a medical standpoint, it’s hard to see the doctor. For instance, I only see a doctor once every two or three months. Unless it’s a visible problem then the nurse will schedule an appointment prior to my scheduled rotation.

MULLANE: How long have you been here?

HELZER: I’ve been here since 2005, but I was arrested since 2000, so I was fighting my case in county jail for five years.

MULLANE: Are you guilty?

HELZER: Yes. I killed people.

MULLANE: You did kill people?

HELZER: Yes, I killed two people. The point is, I’m not – I wrote a letter of apology to the family members of the deceased. I apologized. It was so misdirected. I’m so sorry. It’s like a past life. I’m so not that person anymore. So, I don’t have a problem admitting what I did. I’ve taken responsibility for it. I’m not proud of it. To say it was a mistake is a huge understatement. I can’t express how sorry I am. It was so unnecessary, but I don’t want to talk about my case, I don’t want to talk about my case.

MULLANE: So you are vision impaired?

HELZER: I’m totally blind. What it was was it was a suicide attempt. I stuck two five inch pens into my brain through my eye sockets. It didn’t kill me.

MULLANE: When did you do that?

HELZER: About a year and a half ago. And so it left me blind and partially paralyzed.

MULLANE: But before that you were fine?

HELZER: I had perfect vision, yes. I was tired of death row. It was a failed suicide attempt. And so I was left with paralysis, partial paralysis and complete blindness which they call vision impaired. So that’s me.

MULLANE: How do you feel now that you’ve done that and now you’re living?

HELZER: Terrible. I’m not interested in committing suicide anymore. That was a year and a half ago. I embrace my situation. I’m more okay with the way things are now. I’ve learned to accept the way things are now. But the conditions on death row are such that it can lead one to attempt to commit suicide or to attempt to do whatever. They’re not good here.

MULLANE: How does it compare not having sight to having sight on death row?

HELZER: Well, sight was much better.

[Unlike other cells, Helzer’s cell is void of personal effects. While we talk, he sits on the edge of his bunk and turns his face toward the cell door. Mullane asks him for his thoughts on Proposition 34, which could change his death sentence to life in prison without parole.]

HELZER: I look forward to it. I think it’s the next step of a society that wakes up and realizes this is so unnecessary. It’s all politics. And right now the people are buying into the political story. Oh, death row – tough on crime. It’s not a deterrent. The death penalty is not a deterrent. Because I’ll tell you why. One, when people do commit crimes, they are not thinking, ‘Oh my gosh, I might get the death penalty if I do this.’ They’re in the moment. They want what they want. They have short-sighted… They don’t foresee the consequences of their actions because they’re impulsive. They do whatever they do. Whatever crime it is. They’re not thinking about the ramifications. The notion that the death penalty is somehow a deterrent is a false premise. It’s what people want to be true. Not true.

MULLANE: What if people say they want the death penalty because they just want people punished.

HELZER: Let me tell you…[laughter] you can punish people plenty by giving them Life without the possibility of parole. Besides, there are people here on death row 30, 40 years and they haven’t gotten killed and they have so many more appeals left to them. So no one’s getting killed. No one’s getting executed.

MULLANE: How do you see the rest of your life?

HELZER: I don’t know. I just take one day at a time. One day at a time.

Turning away from Helzer’s cell, I follow Robinson back down the tier, through the security gate and out the big steel doors. Passing guards and guns, it’s a relief to be outside the cell block walking in the warm sunshine. It’s a feeling the condemned men I’ve just left behind will probably never have.

This story originally aired on October 29, 2012.

The East Block is now home to 517 inmates on death row, with 734 total death row inmates in the state of California.  

On Sunday, April 14, Justin Helzer hanged himself in his cell.  The attorney who had defended him released a statement that he was sorry to hear of Helzer's death, but not surprised to learn that his profound mental illness had manifested itself one last time.  

Crosscurrents prison
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.