Protests At San Quentin

How We Won Back Contact Visiting

By: Crystal Bybee

Five months ago, the warden at San Quentin State Prison near San Francisco cut off contact visits for prisoners on death row after a minor incident between two inmates. The suspension of the 23-year-old program forced all 560 inmates to share eight phone booths, speaking to their loved ones through glass with no physical contact allowed.

In response, the Bay Area chapter of the Campaign to End the Death Penalty organized with inmates' family members to win back the visits.

After first organizing a letter-writing campaign that got no response, Campaign members and family members organized a demonstration. On July 15, 65 people protested at the gates of San Quentin to demand not only the return of contact visiting but a moratorium on the death penalty. The crowd chanted: "2-4-6-8, No more murders by the state! 3-5-7-9, Davis should be doing time!" The target of the chant was California Gov. Gray Davis, who maintains his tough-on-crime, pro-death penalty stance in a state where 73 percent of residents favor a moratorium.

San Quentin has been the site of many protests over the years, but this one was unprecedented - because for the first time in the prison's history, the inmates themselves organized to protest with a three-day hunger strike. The Campaign had sent postcards alerting the men on death row about the picket. According to one corrections officer, 55 death row inmates refused meals on the first morning of the hunger strike.

As an unnamed inmate said in a statement: "I have been on San Quentin death row, and there is nothing I can say about being unjustly kidnapped and placed in the belly of the beast awaiting my murder... But I can say that I appreciate the continued support and sacrifices, time and energy... to peacefully demonstrate that we are loved as a people and not as inhuman convicts.

"I would like to express our appreciation, gratitude and solidarity. I will be on a hunger strike... in order to express my solidarity and struggle to the common cause that we share. Stay strong my comrades, and thank you."

Less than two weeks after the protest, the warden announced that she would reinstate the contact visiting program - though in several months' time and with new restrictions.