In 1998, Wayne Adam Ford turned himself into authorities in Humboldt County carrying a woman’s severed breast in his pocket. The serial killer did not want to hurt anyone else.
But at the time, he never could have foreseen that, almost two decades later, he would still be rotting away in a dark cell at San Quentin State Prison.
Ford, now 54, is one of the 746 men and women living on death row in California, where court challenges have prevented an execution since 2006 and the appeals process can span decades as cases are passed between state and federal courts.
“I was completely for the death penalty before I came in here,” said Ford. “[And] to tell you the truth, I would have rather been killed a long time ago rather than spend the last 18 years in solitary confinement. It’s not fun.”
On Tuesday, the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation let the San Francisco Examiner and other members of the media pass through the gates of San Quentin to experience a brief moment of life on death row. In just a few months, voters across the state will be asked to decide whether to speed up the appeals process for condemned inmates or repeal the death penalty.
Proposition 62 argues that the state could save some $150 million a year by repealing the death penalty while also ending the lengthy appeals process, which, advocates say, harms families, and sparing potentially innocent inmates sent to die.
The competing ballot measure in November, Proposition 66, also cites the economic savings that not having hundreds of death row prisoners would have on the state, but argues that the appeals process should be reformed to speed up executions.
Based on the accounts of several condemned men, life on death row can seem mundane. A majority of the death-row inmates at San Quentin live in cells stacked five-tiers high in a bleak building offering little color except for the American flag hanging on the wall. Armed guards pace the raised walkways, their keys jangling as inmates yell in their cells. Many of the inmates suffer from mental health issues.
It’s there that Ford spends his hours eating, watching a small television and playing his guitar. He said his own mental health problem — chronic depression — worsened on death row until mental health services there were improved under court order several years ago.
“People were killing themselves. They were in their cells with maggots in their hair and poop all over the wall,” Ford said. “They’ve just switched this place all around.”
Now, prison workers check on condemned inmates every half hour, according to Ford. In 2014, San Quentin created a Psychiatric Inpatient Program for men on death row, providing 40 beds in a prison hospital for those in crisis.
But even with these improvements, life on death row is a bleak and dull existence. Nearby, the Adjustment Center for inmates with behavioral issues greets visitors with cracked windows on the doors.
Darrell Lomax, 46, is one of the two dozen condemned men there. He was sent to death row in 1996 for robbery and murder.
“It’s a living hell,” Lomax said of life at San Quentin.
Outside in the yard, where condemned inmates can take several hours of recreation time a day, 45-year-old Joey Perez was one of the condemned men locked alone in rows of empty cages with nothing but pull-up bars inside.
“I’m in an 8-by-10 dog kennel,” Perez said. “I’m like a rabid beast. This is a dog kennel. This is a miserable-ass life.”
Perez, a San Francisco native who grew up in the Excelsior and spent most of his life in state custody, was convicted of a murder in 1998.
“I’m going to die in prison,” said Perez, who called for a more rapid appeals process. “That’s my only fear in life, is dying in prison.”
In another outdoor cage, Donald Ray Debose, Jr., who was sentenced to death for the 1997 robbery and murder of a woman in Inglewood, called for statewide criminal justice reform.
“They’re playing ping pong with people’s lives just waiting for their case to be heard,” said Debose, who has been on death row for 17 years.
San Quentin also houses Scott Peterson, who gained notoriety for the 2002 slaying of his pregnant wife. Peterson is housed in a section of death row for well-behaved inmates, where a Mickey Mouse clock hangs on a wall adorned with the words, “The Happiest Place on Earth.”
“It’s all about perspective,” said Lt. Sam Robinson, a spokesperson at San Quentin.