San Quentin, Calif. Standing on the roof of California's death row, Warden Jill Brown looks down at the exercise yards and sees troubling possibilities. An old masonry wall with razor wire on top and a strip of grass are practically all that stand between condemned men and the San Francisco Bay.
"It's a little bit scary," she says.
Brown and state prison officials say the old and crowded death row at San Quentin State Prison must be replaced, and soon. They are moving ahead with plans to build a new $220 million complex on the grounds of San Quentin that would be much more secure inside and out.
Outside the prison walls, opposition is mounting.
"I would think that a state that is in terrible fiscal condition like California would be very careful about every expenditure," says state Assemblyman Joe Nation, a Democrat. "I'm hopeful that they will take another look at this."
Many in liberal, well-to-do Marin County have also objected to the project, either out of opposition to capital punishment or because they believe the new death row building will be a brightly lit eyesore that some say resembles a concentration camp.
But the main contention, says county Supervisor Steve Kinsey, is that spending millions to shore up a 152-year-old prison is a mistake.
"You take a rotten site and you put a new facility on it, what you're doing is putting frosting on a rotten cake," Kinsey said at a recent public forum.
The current death row consists of 629 inmates housed in three ramshackle brick-and-stone buildings, two of them dating to 1934 and 1927. The 1927 building looks like something out of a Jimmy Cagney movie, with five tiers of cells with open bars, and catwalks that run right up close to the cells, and lots of blind corners. Over the years, numerous guards have been attacked and maimed. The last escape attempt was in 2001.
The new death row would be a single building with capacity for 1,408 inmates. It would be surrounded by a lethal electrified fence and would have remote-control locks and solid doors that would minimize face-to-face contact between guards and inmates.
The state has executed 10 people since capital punishment was reinstated in 1977.
Construction of the new death row, approved by former Gov. Gray Davis and supported by Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger, could start in about a year.