San Quentin State Prison has four massive cell blocks, each identified by their cardinal direction: north, south, east, and west. Of the four, only one houses inmates sentenced to death. None of the cell blocks have been visited by a reporter since 2007.
This story was the first of a six-part series following Nancy Mullane in her efforts to increase media access to prisons. It first aired in October 2012. It begins seven hours north of San Francisco in Crescent City and Pelican Bay State Prison. That’s where more than 1,100 of the inmates considered the most dangerous and influential in the state are locked up in the state’s Security Housing Unit also known as the SHU.
California has the largest death row population in the United States, with 727 men and women living in four condemned housing units. All 20 women sentenced to death are housed at the Central California Women’s Facility south of Fresno. All 707 men are housed in three separate death row units inside San Quentin State Prison, just north of San Francisco.
In 1851, the government of the new state of California legalized executions. But it wasn’t until 1891 that the state legislature required all executions take place within the walls of one of the state’s prisons.
The state’s first legal execution by hanging took place March 3, 1893 at San Quentin State Prison. Sixty-year-old José Gabriel was convicted and sentenced to death for killing a farming couple near San Diego.