From the date of being arrested (March 4, 1979) in one of the most racist counties in California (Riverside), and enduring one of what would be called by many, “a circus trial” on December 12, 1979, I was brought to the sixth floor of North Block, better known as the original Death Row.
I’ll never forget the first day, laying on a slab of steel, in an empty cell, looking out a distant window, watching the day turn to night, and thinking about “how I had allowed myself to be played/tricked into circumstances and conditions like this!” I had experienced a few minor encounters of racism in my then twenty-six years of life, but the reality of actually being on DEATH ROW was bewildering. Somewhere in the back of my mind, I was hearing “you’ll wake up from this nightmare in a minute or two.” For anyone that’s experienced sleep paralysis, you’ll understand existing in this condition.
Another unfortunate reality is that there were very few Death Row prisoners who had any interest in the study and/or the application of law, and of the “few,” several were bonafide informants, liars, and/or white supremacists who couldn’t be trusted with any kind of information. In the interest of full disclosure, within my first few months of experiencing Death Row, as just as in the ‘free world,’ informants come in all colors and sizes.
What was perhaps most astounding then, and continues to be true in 2023, was the inordinate amount of “control” that some of the corrections officers here need in order to satisfy their feeble egos, or to feel like a “REAL MAN.” It’s as though they bring their all of their life’s disappointments, frustrations, self-hatred and misery to the prison to release on vulnerable prisoners. It’s similar to a prize-winning body builder challenging a “one-legged man to an ass-kicking contest” (something that only a real coward would do).
It seems that the majority of the public has forgotten about the case of Celeste Guap, an under-aged juvenile female with whom multiple Oakland, CA police officers were continuously molesting for years with impunity. This case was only brought to the public because of an officer with a conscience who revealed the sexual abuse in his suicide note.
Currently, numerous correctional officers are being prosecuted for the raping of women at the Dublin women’s prison in Dublin, California. And let’s not forget San Quentin State Prison’s own Captain Orlando Ponce’s arrest for the forcible penetration of an unconscious person.
The same mentality of guards at San Quentin prison who need to dominate over inmates often accompanies periodic cell searches. Many look as though a hurricane or tornado had landed in the cells, all in the name of in the name of the “safety and security of the prison.”
This excuse can’t account for the amounts of the prisoners’ personal property being stolen (which the administration claim was “lost or misplaced or destroyed”), including 44 years of my case legal files and irreplaceable personal photographs. Several excellent resources are readily available for confirmation of these facts: www.ca9.uscourts.gov (Anderson v. Runge, et al); www.prisonlegalnews.com; www.sfbayview.com/jamesanderson: (two articles); www.space4peace.blogspot.com/organizingnotes” (three articles); and www.criticalresistance.org.
Another piece of propaganda that the public is constantly fed is that Grade-A Death Row prisoners have access to what’s referred to as “exercise yards” (as though there is really green grass, etc.). But the reality is that the “yards” are no more than large outside, fenced and barbed-wired cages (39½’ x 61’) and concrete. (Local TV stations, KTVU, CBS5, ABC7 and NBC-11 have stock footage in their websites). There are four octagon shaped steel tables bolted into the concrete with attached stools. Two (2) steel benches, a pull-up chin bar and a half-sized basketball court on each of the seven “yards.” There are always four sharpshooter gunmen each armed with a Bop gun, a mini-14 assault rifle and a 38 caliber/9 mm pistol who are in constant phone/walkie-talkie contact with supervisors and administration personnel.
Additionally, there are two video/audio cameras visibly mounted and trained on each of the “yards,” and of course there’s at least one corrections officer somewhere in the prison monitoring video screens. With all that’s taking place all over the planet earth not to mention the cosmos, I can only imagine how exciting it must be to sit and watch adult males for five hours every day!
What the general public needs to know is that San Quentin State Prison’s Death Row is very much like a little city within a big city, a “Peyton Place” of sorts like the 1960s TV series, in that everything that happens in a city takes place here as well, but with much more intensity.
Over the past year, there have been innumerable TV, radio, and newspaper reports reflecting the degree of racism in the Antioch, California police department, internal e-mails by those who took an oath to “Protect and Serve,” (contact Ms Tameana Torrez-Walker-District Council Woman, Antioch, Ca. for details). However, Antioch is just one of many police departments which have been exposed for their blatant racism and corruption.
Braxton, Miss. (blacklawyersforjustice.org-MalikShabazz, Esq), Detroit, MI.(Porcha Woodruff), Minneapolis, MN. (George Floyd); Ohio (Ta’kiya Young); Memphis, TN (Tyre Nichols); Los Angeles, CA (Danny Jenkins, Jr.); and the list goes on and on and on. The www.kpfa.org/upfront radio program of March 22, 2023 with reporter Meagan O’Connor contains a list of 1,096 names of victims of police killing innocent citizens. The 2023 La Raza database research project, compiled by Ivette Xochiyotl Boyzo of California State University, San Bernardino, details that police in the U.S. have killed an astounding 32,542 people in police custody since 2000.
The unfortunate reality is that some of the guards assigned to East Block’s Death Row have the exact same “mentalities” as some ‘free-world police’ i.e, “I can do anything I want without any consequences,” and the ‘Green Wall of Silence’ remains intact.
On August 24, 2023, the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals of California issued an opinion in the case of “Todd Ashker v. Gavin Newsom” which basically allows the California Department of Corrections (CDCR) to place prisoners into the solitary confinement-administrative Segregation-Security-Housing-Unit (aka “The Hole”) indefinitely.
This ruling opens a door that will allow any prisoner to be issued a fabricated disciplinary report. Predictably, such report will state, “I observed this inmate (#1) in the company of another inmate (#2) who is a suspected gang member talking with each other (or passing an unknown item). Either or both prisoners will receive an indeterminate “Hole” term without any questions being asked or investigations being conducted.
There’s an article published in the San Francisco Daily Journal reflecting a Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals decision which clearly states “Innocence Doesn’t Matter,” as long as there’s the appearance of a fair trial. There’s also the “National Register of Exonerations” which is more revealing than many will be comfortable with, as it exposes the blatant and intentional wrongful convictions that have effected so many innocent lives (whose lives will never be the same).
An additional unfortunate reality is that most attorneys who are assigned to Death Row prisoners’ appeals won’t assist their clients by making inquiring phone calls or writing letters to the prison, CDCR Sacramento, even though its “Rules of Conduct” state that it’s a part of their responsibility. They also don’t help them when their civil rights have been violated, as when their property is stolen or fraudulent disciplinary reports are written about them. There’s the undeniable reality of at least a few of the death row prisoners being factually innocent, or wrongfully convicted (the author of this article is one of those few).
From the very beginning of this nightmare and to date, I’ve been appointed fourteen different attorneys, most of which were grossly incompetent and/or completely inexperienced in representing a death penalty case. Some of the attorneys had even been suspended by the California Bar Association for various violations; one was an alcoholic, and another, Alister McAlister (1929-2010) had actually authored legislation in the California state assembly to reinstate the death penalty, and included bits and pieces of misinformation in petitions that he drafted to the California Supreme Court. When told of the mistakes, he said he would correct them later but never did.
An unfortunate flaw in the judicial system is that once a death row prisoner has been appointed an appellate attorney by the Supreme Court, it prevents any death row prisoner from filing motions in the court; no matter how incompetent, lazy, or racist the appointee attorney may be.
In a rare public admission by a high-ranking part of the “system,” Alex Kozinski, the former Ninth Circuit Appeals Court Justice told 60 Minutes about innumerable illegalities.
Bryan Stevenson of the Equal Justice Initiative also deserves plaudits for freeing over one hundred innocent persons from prisons, most of which were on death row.
An amazing aspect of subsisting on Death Row here is that most prisoners don’t have their priorities in any kind of order. Freedom is a word that is seldom heard here. The reason is that hopelessness has a firm grip on the minds of many—for a variety of reasons. However, food and sports (football, basketball, boxing, etc.) are heard being discussed every day. The Protocols state that one of the means in which the real powers that be will control the masses is the distractions of sports. It’s a calling card and an invitation for conversation, as someone will always have “something” to say about “their/my team,” it lightens the load of the lonely and/or allows for an opportunity to project “I’m hard as a rock” image, and for many image is everything.
It may surprise some to know just how much of a commodity simple food items are on death row; food items that can be purchased through the prisons’ canteen. It’s amazing how an adult male can be controlled or manipulated by something as simple as Top Ramen or a burrito, or a bag of potato chips. It’s actually comparable to those with substance abuse addictions.
It’s a well known fact that the meals prepared in prison kitchens is usually tasteless garbage, so much so that several paperback books have been written and published by prisoners which contain recipes on how to put a decent meal together with the very basic of ingredients.
I’m actually quite proud to reveal that I’ve never watched or listened to an entire sports game of any kind in my 68 years of life, as I know for a fact that there are too many ways to cheat. However, the “game” that I have watched and listened to daily is the game of politics as it’s the only “game” that matters. Politicians have always been and always will be the real gangsters of the world. I often hear the term, “keep it gangster” spoken as though by just speaking it, this manifests from a dream, or someone they idolize or ‘want-to-be’, it becomes a reality.
Anyone with common sense knows that there’s a huge difference between a gangster and a gang-banger. In any event, you’ll never hear a real gangster refer to himself as such, because real gangsters don’t advertise, i.e.: George W. Bush, Dick Cheney, Donald Rumsfeld, Karl Rove, Dianne Feinstein, Leon Panetta, Ron DeSantis, Marjorie Taylor-Green, Clarence ‘Boot-Licker’ Thomas, and of course Donald ‘The Big Dump’ J. Trump, just to name a few of the many in America. Watch the Dave Zirin documentary “Behind the Shield.”
There’s an old adage which states ‘One man’s trash is another man’s treasure.’ This bit of wisdom can be applied to the difference between business and bullshit. Even though both words begin with “B” and have eight (8) letters, they’re not the same things. Regrettably, many don’t understand or know there’s a big difference.
Anyone familiar with the 1975 movie, “One Flew Over The Cuckoo’s Nest” starring Jack Nicholson will have a more accurate picture of the mentality of many on California’s Death Row, which has literally become a mental hospital.
The child-like thought processes of many prisoners here, from listening to the little white-lies to the impossible-to-believe whoppers are part of the everyday routine, and which is expected behavior. Most newer model cars and trucks have what’s called an ‘ABS System’ (Automatic Braking System) which allows me to avoid most of the sordid history of Death Row here. If these conditions weren’t so serious, it would be humorous and entertaining.
Along similar lines, even though prisoners actually pay for the two (2) weekly movies shown on San Quentin’s TV channels (through the 10% additional fees added to Special Purchase Orders), the administration selects the movies, most of which are designed and created for children and adolescents. So the dumbing down effects that have been employed by ‘the powers that be’ for the past ten to fifteen years is alive and well in California’s prison system.
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About the Author
For 44 years, James P. Anderson has sat on California’s Death Row at the San Quentin State Prison, built in 1854.
Born on December 26, 1953, James was convicted of murdering two women by an all-white jury in predominantly racist Riverside County, California.
His attorneys failed to collect the murder weapon that police discovered in the pocket of another individual. Further, critical forensic DNA evidence from the crime scene—including shoe prints in the sand that were actually two sizes different from his shoe size—would have proven his innocence.