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Side of a building at San Quentin State Prison, covered with razor wire
Photo by Eddie Herena

In March, I was waiting in line for the kiosk and noticed a memo posted on the bulletin board. Signed by the director of the Division of Adult Institutions, it was addressed to death row inmates.

The memo explained that the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation (CDCR) had implemented a pilot program two years earlier, allowing eligible death row inmates at San Quentin State Prison to voluntarily transfer to other high-security general population prisons.

Called the “Condemned Inmate Transfer Pilot Program,” it was created by California Proposition 66, approved by voters in 2016. The goal of the initiative was to integrate condemned inmates into general population prisons, so they could work and pay restitution fines to their victims.

The move allowed CDCR to phase out the practice of separating people on death row from others based solely on their sentence and removed the maximum custody designation for them. In addition, CDCR would now determine where an inmate should be housed based on one’s behavior, risks, needs and other individual case factors, including safety concerns and one’s physical and mental health.

In some cases, being housed in general population facilities would enable a person to be closer to their family or county of commitment, where they were confined awaiting trial. While people who are condemned would still be classified similarly as a prisoner who is serving a life sentence without the possibility of parole, this could provide greater access to rehabilitation programs, more community and a chance to return to society. They could also potentially hold prison jobs that would allow them to pay restitution.

But the truth of the matter is more complicated. The idea that death row inmates could have greater access to jobs to pay restitution to their victims is impractical, even disingenuous.

Death row inmates are officially considered “close custody” inmates, meaning they require more supervision but need not be placed in segregated housing. Inmates with this designation are also not allowed to go beyond prison walls for employment opportunities or vocational program training because of their high risk of escape.

Claiming to provide death row inmates with jobs and other rehabilitation programs is just a way for CDCR to entice death row inmates to voluntarily get off death row, ultimately saving the state money.

It’s expensive to house inmates on death row. And the California administration has finally come to terms with the high cost, too. Now, advocates inside and outisde government are starting to lobby for the abolition of the death penalty in California altogether — for moral reasons, yes, but for financial ones too.

In 2019, Gov. Gavin Newsom issued an executive order placing a moratorium on the death penalty.

In the end, this seemingly well-intentioned program might do little good for prisoners on death row.

My understanding is that these inmates automatically have single-cell status, which is a blessing for a prisoner serving a long sentence. If they volunteer to get off death row, then they likely have to forfeit their single-cell status.

What’s more, once a death row inmate enters the general population prison, the only employment he or she is likely to obtain is a support services job such as groundskeeping, janitorial work or maintenance. The pay rate for these jobs is anywhere between 8 and 37 cents an hour. With such low pay rates, how could death row inmates or anyone else be expected to pay restitution fines to their victims?

The only true solution is to start paying prisoners the state minimum wage.

Disclaimer: The views in this article are those of the author. Global Forum Online has verified the writer’s identity and basic facts such as the names of institutions mentioned.

Tue Kha is a writer incarcerated in California. He is working on a novel titled "Kormic."