Dispatch from death row

A first-hand account of what it's like to wait for the California gas chamber for 25 years.
Dean Carter | Jul 7 2010 | comment  

There are about 3,270 men and women on death row in US state and Federal prisons. There are nearly 700 in California. One of them is Dean Phillip CarterIn 1990 the Alaska-born TV cameraman was convicted of raping and strangling five young women in a three-week crime spree in California in 1984.  Described as "an absolutely awful, non-human being" by the prosecution, he was given a death sentence and has been in San Quentin Prison ever since. His appeal to the state Supreme Court has been denied.  He is now 54. Below are some of his reflections about prison together with answers to questions posed to him by MercatorNet.

I am sitting here in my cell on Death Row in San Quentin Prison… I [would like to] give you a perspective of the Death Penalty, the justice (or "just-us", as a wise man once said) system, life in prison and hopefully I can give you a reasonably coherent account of what it is like from where I sit. You have all heard what the media, politicians, and others who have their own agenda, have to say about crime and the Death Penalty, so maybe I can provide some balance to that.

Although I said that I do not intend to discuss my case, I want to say that I vehemently deny committing the crimes that I am sitting here on Death Row for. The reason that I mention this is because I feel it is important for you to know this since it is why I have the attitudes and opinions that I will be talking about…

Trying to explain what life on Death Row is like, fighting for your life in the court system, and trying to keep a grip on your sanity in the process: one of the difficult things is to keep your perspective and not let yourself become overwhelmed by the incredible pressure and stress that you have to deal with. Not just in dealing with the system, but also in just trying to stay alive and survive from day to day in here.

There are people in here that give up and commit suicide, others slowly lose their mind and end up being medicated. The prison is concerned to the point that anyone here is able to function from day to day until they are to be executed and psychiatric drugs help towards that goal…

There are so many different dynamics involved that I seriously doubt if it is possible to adequately explain what it's like. It would be like somebody from another country asking you to explain what America is like. You can talk in generalities, but when it gets down to the nuances that really get to the heart of it, you just cannot put it into words that will do it justice. The best I can do is talk about some of my experiences and observations and let you draw your own conclusions based on that.

I am not a spokesman for anyone else on Death Row, or in prison, or the county jails, nor is it my intent to be one. Every person going through the system has their own thoughts and opinions about this insane environment that we try to survive in and I wouldn't presume to speak for them. But you are stuck with me and, even though I will try to be objective about it, I can't help but be subjective in many of the things I will say. You can take what I say with a grain of salt, you might think that I am full of shit, or you might agree with what I say, all I want is for you to keep from making a judgment until you hear what I say. The news media says that more than 80 percent of you support the death penalty and since we all seem to dance to whatever tune the news media plays, I will assume that most of you are not sympathetic towards me, or the others sitting on Death Row. All I ask is that you keep an open mind.

There is the sense that people on Death Row are slobbering animals that should be kept in a cage and executed as soon as can be arranged. I have even heard on talk shows where people have advocated an electric chair right in the courtroom, and as soon as the verdict is rendered, strap the person in and cook them. Never mind that the system makes mistakes, what are a few innocent people being killed, as long as you can get rid of the others in the process.

But most of the people on Death Row are fairly normal. Sure, there are the ones here that I would never turn my back on. There are some people here that would make Hannibal Lecter seems like a nice guy. But as I said, most guys here are not slobbering lunatics or cold-blooded killers - but there are some here that could be put in that category.

Are prisoners treated with dignity? Prisons and county jails are (by accident or design) institutions where one of the first things you surrender is your dignity. I suspect it is one of the control points used by these institutions to make the prisoners more docile and have them comply with authority.

Am I surprised by the abuses in Abu Ghraib? I would have been surprised if these sorts of abuses were not happening. From what I understand about the military jailers involved, they were military police and not trained in running a jail or in how to treat prisoners. Plus the encouragement of the intelligence people to treat the prisoners in the manner they did, it was an inevitable outcome. In any prison (in the Western world) you have abuses happening. It runs the gamut from institutionalised forms of abuse down the individual (specific guards) who are supposedly trained individuals, unlike those jailers in Abu Ghraib.

Do I feel forgotten, or regarded as a non-person by the California government? I suspect those who have non-capital offenses and are doing a relatively small sentence (5 to 10 years) would feel forgotten or made to feel like non-persons. But those with a death sentence are never forgotten by the government. But we are made to feel non-human in the death penalty process.

More of Dean Carter’s letters can be found at a website maintained by his supporters, Dead Man Talking. An extensive report about his crimes and his conviction can be found on the Los Angeles Times website

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