Saturday, 23 May 2009

Former San Quentin warden honored for speaking out against death penalty

Richard Halstead
Posted: 05/22/2009 06:37:40 PM PDT

During her stint as warden of San Quentin State Prison, Jeanne Woodford oversaw the execution of four death row inmates without ever discussing her personal feelings about the death penalty.

On Thursday night, however, Woodford received an award from Death Penalty Focus for her courage in speaking out against capital punishment. Woodford, who went on to serve as both director and undersecretary of the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation, began sharing her thoughts about the death penalty about a year after retiring in 2006. Others honored by the San Francisco-based nonprofit included New Mexico Gov. Bill Richardson and former California Attorney General John Van De Kamp.

Singling out Woodford and Van De Kamp, Death Penalty Focus director Lance Lindsey said, "They're courageous because they're coming out of communities that are often associated with a knee-jerk tough-on-crime position. What they represent is a smart-on-crime position."
Woodford, 56, said she has always opposed the death penalty.

"Initially for me it was just a matter of, does this really make sense to be killing people to avenge the death of someone else?" Woodford said in an interview this week.

She said it is a debate that will never be settled.

"Some people believe in an eye for an eye, and some people don't," she said.

Woodford, who started her career as a prison guard at San Quentin, said there are more practical reasons for opposing capital punishment.

She said the death penalty is an ineffective deterrent because of the time it takes to execute condemned prisoners. She said that due to improvements in prison security, capital punishment is no longer needed to protect the public from the possibility that killers might escape. She noted that prisoners can now be sentenced to life in prison without the possibility of parole. And, she said, it costs far more to execute a condemned prisoner than to keep one in prison for life.
"I just really worry about the state of California," Woodford said. "I worry about the fact that we continue to spend so much money on issues that aren't giving us any benefit. The death penalty is one of those."

Woodford said the state also can no longer afford to incarcerate nonviolent offenders or to skimp on mental health and drug treatment programs, which keep people out of prison. She said money is being wasted by sending parole violators back to state prison for minor violations.

"We're not making intelligent choices about who should be in state prison and who shouldn't," Woodford said.

During her stint as warden at San Quentin from 1999 to 2004, Woodford initiated a number of experimental programs aimed at reducing recidivism.

"We currently look back on that time with some nostalgia," said Jacques Verduin, executive director of the Insight Prison Project, a San Rafael-based nonprofit that works with San Quentin to provide rehabilitative programs.

"Jeannie was one of the first to understand that the community could play a larger role in this prison, or prisons period," Verduin said.

But Kent Scheidegger, legal director for the Criminal Justice Legal Foundation in Sacramento, disputes Woodford's economic critique of capital punishment. The foundation is a public interest law organization that files friend of the court briefs to speed the implementation of executions.

"The argument assumes that the present costs are necessary and will continue and that is not a valid assumption," Scheidegger said. "The costs can be greatly reduced. The appeals don't need to last 20 years. Virginia does it in five."

In a guest editorial that appeared in the Los Angeles Times in October, Woodford recalled presiding over the execution of Robert Lee Massie. Woodford said she chose to write about Massie "because he would be the poster child for why people say we need a death penalty." Massie was originally sentenced to death in 1965, but his sentence was later commuted to life. He was paroled in 1978, murdered a liquor store owner during a robbery eight months later, pleaded guilty, and was once again sentenced to die.

Massie was one of several death row inmates who effectively volunteered to be executed by dropping their appeals, Woodford said.

"So it's really like assisting with their suicide," Woodford said. "What that ought to say to people is that permanent imprisonment isn't an easy punishment for anyone."

Contact Richard Halstead via e-mail at

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