On San Quentin's death row, roughly 630 inmates currently await execution. This population is much larger than any other state's and roughly twice what the facility was designed to accommodate. These are men and women who, based on death-penalty logic, deserve to die because they are beyond rehabilitation-not even a life behind bars can begin to account for their crimes.
Barring a grant of clemency from Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger, Stanley "Tookie" Williams will be the next.
Co-founder of the Crips street gang, Williams was sentenced to death in 1981 for the murders of four people in L.A. and has lived in a 9-by-4-foot cell at San Quentin since, excluding six years he spent in solitary confinement. His execution by lethal injection is set for Dec. 13.
Williams' case has re-ignited debates ranging from the overrepresentation of African Americans in U.S. prisons to the ethics of the death penalty itself. Williams has put the magnifying glass on how our criminal-justice system defines rehabilitation and, more importantly, whether rehabilitation is even appropriate for the most violent criminals.
Williams' list of accomplishments during his 25 years in prison is the basis for his supporters' calls for clemency. During his years in solitary confinement, Williams studied constantly: black history, psychology, sociology, religion, politics. He learned to speak Swahili. In 1992, he began to write.
He wrote eight books aimed at deterring kids from joining gangs. The books comprise the Tookie Speaks Out Against Gang Violence series. One book, Life in Prison, gives middle-school youth a realistic look at incarceration. His autobiography, Blue Rage, Black Redemption, carries the message that rehabilitation is possible.
"Don't join a gang," he tells kids in Tookie Speaks Out. "You won't find what you're looking for. All you will find is trouble, pain and sadness. I know I did."
He's been criticized for not taking responsibility for the murders; he argues that he's innocent. Indeed, there was no physical evidence linking him to the crime, and one witness has since recanted, claiming he was coerced by police. In 1997 Williams issued an apology for starting the Crips. "I pray that your suffering will soon come to an end as more gang members wake up and stop hurting themselves and others." Williams ends his letter, "I vow to spend the rest of my life working toward solutions."
And he has. Though his nine Nobel Prize nominations have been criticized as overly laudatory and politically motivated, and though his critics have charged that his redemption is an elaborate attempt to spare his own life, Williams' anti-violence programs have proven more effective than most measures government leaders have attempted. Live mentoring via telephone to principals in 23 of Chicago's most at-risk high schools led to an entire anti-violence curriculum based around Williams' autobiography-a program so popular there's a waiting list of students who want to participate. The "Tookie Protocol for Peace" provides a template for communities to form peace treaties between local gangs, and he's been credited with truces in several cities, including the April 2004 treaty between 200 members of the Crips and Bloods gangs in Newark, N.J. By May 2004, that city's murder rate dropped markedly, and Ras Baraka, Newark's deputy mayor, credited Williams for the decrease.
In recent weeks, the San Francisco Chronicle and the Los Angeles Times have published editorials calling for the governor to commute Williams' sentence to life in prison (the vengeful San Diego Union-Tribune editorial board, meanwhile, advocated no clemency). Last Friday, Schwarzenegger set a private clemency hearing for Thursday, Dec. 8.
Supporters of capitol punishment often rely on the notion of its existence as a necessary evil, reserved only for those criminals who have proven themselves beyond rehabilitation-individuals with no potential to contribute positively to society. In a recent interview with the London Times, Williams said the American correctional system "does not recognize the concept of rehabilitation. If people in prison suddenly began following my example, a lot of people would be out of work. The prison system is a big business."
If Williams' sentence is commuted, it will be the first time a California governor has granted clemency since 1967 when Ronald Reagan spared a severely brain-damaged inmate.
"By being alive, I can save the lives of people involved in gangs," Williams has said in his defense. "But they are mostly poor black people. And if I am killed, what message does it send? It tells people in prison that it isn't worth trying to change, and it tells the young black people in gangs that their lives are not worth saving."
If Williams' behavior during the past 25 years doesn't count as rehabilitation and redemption, what does? And if that's not the goal of incarceration, what is?
It's in Schwarzenegger's hands-the message he wants to send, the definition of rehabilitation. He should think less about vengeance and more about lives worth saving.
Emma Silvers is currently serving time as an intern with CityBeat.