Inside San Quentin death row where killers are mauled with ‘bone crusher’ shanks and lags attack guards in ‘initiations’

 IT’S housed some of the most brutal figures in modern history - 'Night Stalker' serial killer Richard Ramirez and cult leader Charles Manson to name a few.  

Today 670 condemned inmates - including wife-killer Scott Peterson - are on the prison’s chilling death row.

No inmates have ever been executed in the prison's £624,000 death chamber
No inmates have ever been executed in the prison's £624,000 death chamberCredit: Getty
San Quentin has housed some terrifying figures including Charles Manson
San Quentin has housed some terrifying figures including Charles MansonCredit: AP:Associated Press

Now San Quentin State Prison is in danger of losing its hardline reputation - with officials planning to dismantle its death row and move prisoners into the general population. 

In 2016, state governor Gavin Newsom banned executions taking place in California - leaving the prison’s death chamber built in 2008 unused. 

No executions have taken place since 2006, when 76-year-old killer Clarence Ray Allen was killed by lethal injection. 

But the prison is still no walk in the park. Here, we go behind bars to take a look at what its death row is really like. 

Attack or be jumped

Inmates who received the death penalty are evaluated and classified in one of two categories when they arrive at San Quentin.

Lieutenant Sam Robinson told KALW Radio: “Here on death row, we classify them as grade A and grade B.

“Grade A are individuals who are programming and follow our rules, for the most part. Grade B are the individuals who are the opposite of that, who are non-programmers or gang affiliates or whatever the case may be.”

The neo-Nazi gang the Aryan Brotherhood was founded at San Quentin in 1964. 

Gangs like the Mexican Mafia, Nuestra Familia, Nazi Low Riders, the Bloods, and the Crips also operate in the prison.

Those who don’t want to be gang-affiliated “walk alone” and face a constant battle to stay outside the gang system. 

Lieutenant Robinson described how one prisoner viciously "retired" guards in the adjustment facility, and said prisoners were punished by fellow lags if they didn't take a chance to attack officials.

He said: “Over the course of the last couple of decades he’s successfully retired four of our staff in this facility due to assaults that he’s perpetrated on them.

"Those individuals were assaulted to the point where their injuries were extremely severe and they were never, ever able to return to duty.”

He added: “If [prisoners] don’t assault staff when given the opportunity, they will be disciplined by other inmates here in the facility.

“But when you’re in the Adjustment Center if you want to live amongst the population, you have to do as the population order or dictate that you do.”

’Bone crusher’ shanks

Prisoner on prisoner attacks were commonplace in the 70s and 80s - but still happen today. 

Child murderer Edward Schaefer was fatally stabbed in the neck and chest with a home-made weapon described as a “bone-crusher” in 2010.

Schaefer, 44, of Novato was repeatedly gored in a prison yard by an unnamed inmate and died the same day. 

He had arrived at San Quentin just months before, three days after receiving a life sentence for the murder of nine-year-old Melody Osheroff.

At least one suspected murder weapon was recovered - made from bed parts and larger than a typical prison shank. 

State prisons department spokeswoman Terry Thornton said: “They’re meant to do a great deal of damage.” 

After the 2016 moratorium on executions, the biggest danger to death row inmates now is suicide.

East Block - home to 500 convicts - is a towering five storeys high. 

Each individual 6x9 foot cells are covered in tight heavy mesh - making seeing outside almost impossible. 

Aggressive or predatory inmates are forced to exercise alone in 32 individual yards while others go to two group yards four times a week. 

On days with no exercise inmates will spend 24 hours a day alone in the cell.

East block prisoner and killer Raymond Lewis, 41, said: “To me, this is worse than death.

“If I had the courage or the heart, I would have ended it long ago.

“I hope people understand, this is not a way to live.”

Cruel and unusual punishment

Since the prison opened in 1893, 215 inmates were hanged at San Quentin and a further 194 were gassed from 1938. 

The 7.5 ft, octagonal, lime green death chamber was in use until 1972 when the California Supreme Court criticised the "cruel and unusual" punishment. 

For 25 years no prisoners were condemned in the facility - until 1992. 

Robert Alton Harris - who murdered two teenage boys in 1978 - was the last prisoner gassed to death in San Quentin. 

Since then 11 inmates have been put to death by lethal injection. 

But in 2006 the prison was criticised for inhumanely injecting inmates. 

One district judge accused the prison for allowing lags to writhe in pain as they died due to a lack of staff training and the poorly lit gas chamber used for injections.

In 2008, San Quentin opened a new $853,000 death chamber at the prison - but it will never be used. 

Covid contagion

Last year the prison was accused of letting Covid-19 run rampant throughout the cramped and overpacked prison. 

One inmate Kerry Rudd told Mother Jones: “It’s like a horror movie when you’re watching like a monster inch its way towards you and you haven’t no way out, you have nowhere to run. Us being locked in here, it’s like we’re watching this virus get steadily closer to us and there’s nothing we can do.” 

Another prisoner John Mattox was transferred to San Quentin while showing signs of Covid. 

Two days after Mattox arrived he was tested, but only found out he was positive five days later and placed in a filthy isolation cell. 

He recalled that the cell was “filthy and an officer took water with bleach and doused the walls and mattress and left without giving me a towel to wipe up”.

The mint green chamber used to both gas and lethally inject the condemned
The mint green chamber used to both gas and lethally inject the condemnedCredit: Reuters
Death row inmates are kept completely separate from the rest of the prison population
Death row inmates are kept completely separate from the rest of the prison populationCredit: Getty
Shanks like these have been found at San Quentin
Shanks like these have been found at San Quentin

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