black, women and children.
We are processed through a small office . Even a pack of tissues is taken from me. It was not sealed appropriately apparently. I have been forewarned that no blue clothing can be worn by visitors. Nothing that can be construed as prison garb.
That certainly means denim. They say a young boy was recently turned away because he wore blue jeans.
Yet there is a peculiar informality to the vetting process. A women official calls back to a visitor as though she is an old friend. We are processed by a genial older guy who is almost regretful that my tissue packet is barred. '"Have a good visit," he says quite warmly to us as though he means it after we have collected our passes.
We then walk from that building down a street of older style houses. One is called the San Quentin museum. Hmm. That’s clearly not open to the public. Some of the staff live in this street. I am wondering what it is like for their kids to grow up within the prison walls.
Then we head into the prison itself. First stop is a very cramped visitor’s office where we hand in our IDs through a slot in a wire mesh to a guard sitting at a desk behind.
Then into the visitors’ section itself. The section specifically set aside for 'the Condemned'. The room is basically a space containing around twelve wire mesh rectangular cages, connected together. Each cage has a door at the front and the rear. We collect snacks from a row of vending machines. Chips, crisps, soda, sandwiches. Then enter the cage allocated for this visit. We take our seats in two of the three Formica chairs inside.
We have a few minutes to take in our surroundings. There are men in some of the other cages, pleasantly chatting with their Sunday visitors. They are all condemned to die.
K is brought in through the opposite door of our cage.
He hugs both of us and then plunges energetically into a description of his situation . He had been on death row for the last 29 years. He was three hours from being executed in February 2004. An experience that still haunts him. He grabs my arm. "They looked at my arm searching for a good vein to inject into."
He turns mine over, prodding the skin.
When the call came from the State Supreme Court, confirming that the execution was stayed, he says there was a look of frustration in his executioners’ faces. "They resented me for cheating death. It seemed like they had been looking forward to it."
He says that in the days before the execution date , they had made all kinds of preparations – measuring him for the body bag and coffin. "They were always checking up on me 'are you feeling ok?' They didn’t want me committing suicide!"