San Quentin State Penitentiary near San Francisco is California’s oldest and most famous prison. Pop stars such as Johnny Cash and Metallica have performed here, and well-known criminals such as Charles Manson were imprisoned here. Opened in 1852, the complex is home to the largest death row in the United States. There have been no executions in California since 2006. In November 2016, a majority of California voters voted to speed up the implementation of the death penalty, the Democratic governor Gavin Newsom but suspended the use of the death penalty by decree in March 2019. He wants to break up Death Row in San Quentin. Indian-born psychiatrist Gundeep Sekhon has lived in the United States for thirteen years and has worked with death row inmates in San Quentin for three years. Here she presents her personal view of things, not an official one.
Frankfurter Allgemeine Quarterly: Miss Gundeep Sekhon, how many people are currently being held in San Quentin?
Gundeep Kekhon: A little over 3000, possibly up to 4000. It’s a men’s prison, however we have a few transgender women who have yet to be transferred to a women’s prison. We’re the only California institution with a death row prison — with the highest number of death row inmates in all United States.
How many men are on death row?
Currently around 700.
What is your job?
I am, among other things, the psychiatrist for the inmates on death row. I have an office where patients can visit me or I can speak to them in front of their cells.
How do the cells look?
On death row, everyone has solitary cells that are smaller than you might think. There is a steel toilet, a sink and a simple bed.
Are private belongings allowed in the cells?
You would be amazed at how some decorate their cells. One of my patients is a basketball fan, he has posters of his stars on the walls. Or you see family photos. Some have amazing artistic skills, they paint pictures, one is an expert in beadwork, one in crochet, another in embroidery. And it’s like outside: some are neater than others – it’s their home.
In movies we often see prisoners in orange overalls, what do the condemned wear?
All inmates wear what we call “the blue,” the official attire of the CDCR, the California Department of Corrections & Rehabilitation. This consists of blue denim pants, blue denim jackets, white shirts, and black and white shoes.
The shoes that the state issues don’t always have shoelaces, but you can also wear private shoes, some walk around in ultra-modern sneakers. Unless you have been admitted to psychiatric treatment or hospitalized, you can also wear shoelaces.
And the orange overalls?
They are only worn during transport. Those wearing orange are either arriving in San Quentin or about to be taken somewhere else.
Where do you meet the death row inmates?
For a confidential conversation: in the office. You will be taken there by law enforcement officials. Outside her cell, someone always accompanies her. They always wear handcuffs. You are not allowed to move freely at any time. In the office there is a “therapeutic module” in which they have to sit.