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Interview: Returning To General Population After San Quentin Closes Death Row

California Governor Gavin Newsom has always been outspoken about his views against the policy of capital punishment. Once elected, he kept his promise to halt all criminal executions in the state by closing down the death chamber located at San Quentin. On March 13, 2019, the lethal injection chair was officially removed from the room before it was padlocked. With this move, he effectively shut down the infamous and controversial Death Row cell block, which has been where people convicted of heinous crimes are isolated to a single housing unit where together they await execution. 

Since the closure of death row, Governor Newsom and his allies at the state capitol, in coordination with the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation (CDCR), have begun to implement a pilot program that offers some of the formerly condemned-to-death the opportunity to receive a transfer to other high-security prisons throughout the state. At these prisons, there is a benefit of more access to educational, rehabilitative, spiritual-religious programs and resources. With the good behavior credits earned there from, these men have a roadmap to gradually work their way back into a medium security facility with more accommodations. So then even if they must spend the rest of their lives in prison, this can be viewed as an improvement from life on death row for them. 

In the new setting, in what is commonly known as general population or GP, there is more space and freedom to roam than as seen on the segregated cell blocks like death row, where isolation is the key policy. In GP, there’s also a more diverse crowd including a broader range of criminal convictions and types, severity, and length of sentences. In direct correlation to that, there are men with different outlooks on life and plans for the future. This makes for a richer daily experience than the one of death row. The newly integrated men from the row now get to mix and mingle amongst this crowd, for better or worse. 

I was able to interview one such man, who was convicted of many crimes, including more than a dozen murders. Steven Anthony Jones, known more commonly by his alias “Bandit,” has been living at Corcoran State Prison since 2021. The following is the interview with him that I conducted in the summer of 2022 after he adjusted to his new life in GP. 

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JOVAN: So how long did you spend on death row? 

STEVEN: 18 years. 

J: When did you first arrive there? 

S: August 19 2003. 

J: And how many years in all has it been since you were first arrested? 

S: It was 23 years ago. 

J: And where are you originally from out there [in the free world]? Where is home? 

S: You know I grew up in Watts, California, a suburb in Los Angeles, California. 

J: Okay, obviously you were sentenced to death, as death row and your experience with it is the central theme of this interview and the article that I’m writing… Would you mind disclosing the charges of which you were convicted? And we won’t get into the details so just give me the charges, if you’re open to that?

S:  I can say that my experiences with having a death sentence have been a wild and crazy journey with ups and downs, lows and highs. But having death hanging over my head has also been a blessing because while being on death row, I’ve met all the special amazing people I now have in my life. And because of these God-sends I’ve become a better person, a stronger person, a much wiser person. I become a much more patient person, a positive person, and most of all, a God-fearing person who wants to continue to live life. As far as my charges, I was convicted of 23 murders, 13 in California, three in Phoenix, Arizona, and six while the Los Angeles County jail awaiting trial. 

J: Were there any executions carried out while you were there all of those years on death row? Anyone you knew personally or had built a relationship with while there? 

S: Yeah, I was there for only Big Tookie’s* murder. I knew him from my first day there until they murdered him in 2006. 

*Big Tookie is Stanley “Tookie” Williams, founder of the Westside Crips, the very first Crip street gang, which originated in Los Angeles.

J: Can you tell me about any noticeable changes in his mood or attitude in the days, weeks, or months leading up to that day? Or even changes in the overall atmosphere on the cell block? 

S: When we found out about Tookie’s murder date, the entire vibe on the cell block did quickly change. There were many different emotions floating through the block: anger, hate, rage, sadness, and even many fallen tears. And on the day of his death, the entire prison system felt the loss. Tookie was very well loved, known, and respected by all on both sides—Crips and Bloods. 

J: Tell me how it feels for you to have escaped that very same cold reality. 

S: As far as myself, I accepted the fact that I was going to die in prison the moment the police put me in cuffs. 

J: What do you think about the policy, capital punishment, whether in our modern and so-called civilized society or even back in medieval or biblical times?

S: I think the death penalty should be done away with because most people on death row have made positive changes in their lives and should be given a second chance. Plus, why is it wrong for one person to kill but right and legal for them who run the legal system to turn right around and kill just the same? Capital punishment is just wrong on every level because nobody has the right to take a life no matter what someone’s crime might have been. 

J: Who do you credit with your good fortune, if anyone at all? 

S: Well, it feels like I’ve been set free. Sitting in those small cells for 20 to 21 hours a day has drove convicts to suicide, and most have just lost their minds. I just wanted to get away from all the death and madness. Since being off the row, I’ve been able to have peace of mind. It’s been great. 

The first person I credit and thank is God Almighty because without his will, nothing is possible. And the second person is my one and only true best friend and my heavens sent, Miss Celia Walker. It’s all because of her that I’m the strong and positive person that I am today. She is the reason I want to keep living life. 

J: You know, I’ve become a man of faith while serving my time. And I have vague memories of stories I both read and listened to that gave me the sense that men on death row form a heightened degree of spirituality. Most clearly I can remember hearing that a lot of these men, who were awaiting physical death while already in physical captivity, developed a belief in reincarnation. Is any of this true and, if so, can you talk about it some? 

S: Yes! There is a very, very strong belief and faith in God on death row. That’s where I found my faith. It’s where my friend Celia introduced me to the Bible. And once I accepted Him into my life, He gave me joy, peace, love and happiness. And I’ve seen some of the most dangerous, hardened convicts calling on God to come into their lives to take away all the hurt, anger, and pain. So yes, God’s presence as well as the devil’s are floating heavily throughout the row. You can’t forget Death Row is death’s hangout and playground. 

J: Just a moment ago, you mentioned suicides. Have you personally encountered any? 

S: Yep. In all the time I spent on death row, I’ve witnessed over 100 suicides. I’ve had friends and homeboys take themselves out because the pressure was just too great for them to handle. On the row, someone is found dead in their cell two to three times a month. 

J: So how does someone maintain a functioning sense of balance in their mental health under these circumstances? 

S: Well, speaking for myself, I’ve been in and out of the jail system all of my life. Starting at nine years old, I’ve done foster homes, juvenile hall, camps, Youth Authority, and 35 years in and out of prison. For me, functioning and maintaining my sanity comes easy. And like I said before, I accepted the fact that I had death hanging over my head, but I also knew that I would most likely die of natural causes, or at the hands of another convict before the state ever got the chance to murder me. 

J: Do you remember when you first heard about Governor Newsom’s plans to shut down California’s death chamber? 

S: I was watching the news when I heard that Governor Newsom stated that he was halting all executions in California. It was his very first act as new governor, first week in office. He said there were innocent people on death row and he’s not killing any innocent people on his watch. When we all saw them remove the deathbed from the chamber and drive it away on the flatbed truck, there was so much joy and happiness that day. The guys who were on the waiting list to be executed were saved and everybody knew we each had one less thing to worry and stress about. I was just happy for all those guys whose luck had run out and now had more time to live life, even if it is in the prison. So I used to always tell guys that every day above ground is a good day. 

J: So just how is the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation going about relocating the guys from death row now? How many guys have made it off of that cell block? And where did you come to fall in the rollout? 

S: Well, as for relocating the guys from the row goes, four years ago, California passed a law allowing San Quentin State Prison to start a voluntary pilot program for any death row convict who would like to be moved to general population and other prisons. That’s the program that I’m under at the present moment. I would say that about 250 to 300 guys have been transferred to mainline prisons so far. 

For the rest of the guys, they were told that the remaining guys will be moved to different level 4 180-design prisons. But then those guys quickly filed a lawsuit saying that, if they were moved, their lives would be in danger or they would kill themselves. The public also filed a lawsuit saying they wanted them to remain at San Quentin because they would put family members in danger. So that was shut down and for now they will remain at San Quentin. 

J: How did it feel when you finally did board that bus to leave San Quentin and when you stepped off of it from death row? 

S: Well, once I boarded that bus on May 18, 2021, I was truly happy. And when I stepped off that bus and the cuffs and leg irons were removed, I realized that I didn’t have to be placed in cuffs every time I left my cell anymore. That made me smile and what I enjoy most about being off the row is being able to go outside at night, looking up and admiring the shining stars after not seeing the night sky for 18 years. It’s truly a blessing. 


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J: Have you had any thoughts or fears about the state ending the program in the future and sending all of you guys back out to San Quentin? You know how politics go back and forth with almost every incoming administration, not to mention how public opinion can seem to boomerang unpredictably. 

S: No, I have no thoughts of going back or them ending the program because I know it has to be put on the ballot and voted out and the only way anyone on the program can get sent back is if they killed someone. That’s the only way and that’s not what I’m about any longer. So I know I’m going to make it on this program. 

J: So lastly, briefly share with us what are your thoughts, hopes, and/or intentions for the future? You can touch on family, romance, education, finances, freedom, or anything at all related to the future. 

S: Well, as from my thoughts? They’re for me to always think positively and always believe in myself, and that I am worth it no matter what anyone says or has said or thinks of me. 

And as for my intentions, they’re to continue sharing my story and testimony with the world, mainly our misguided youth in here with no clue. And through my writings, I hope to be able to help change someone’s life so they won’t go out and make the same mistakes that I made or worse. 

As for my family, when I first started this journey, I lost all of my family as well as my children. Because back then I was on the fast track to self destruction. My mind was in a very dark and evil place. But after God sent me Celia after 14 years of loneliness, hurt, and pain, she came into my life and set me on the right path by introducing me to God and His word. I started writing and doing other positive things. And I was blessed with my children and grandchildren back in my life. So as far as my finances go, I now have family friends and my fiance who takes care of me and makes sure I have everything I need. I’ve been blessed. 

As for romance, I’ve met a beautiful woman through a pen pal service. Within the two and a half years we’ve been corresponding we have found true love. This woman has shown me nothing but love. And as far as romance? (Smiles) Well, we get as romantic as we can through our letters, and I sent her tons of romantic poetry. 

As for my future… Well, I know now that my future is whatever I want it to be and, as of now, I know my future is going to be wonderful, happy, and very blessed.

* * *

Nationally, there are 24 states that still hold on to the policy of capital punishment, with three others that have a governor-imposed moratorium on executions, even though 42% of Americans oppose the policy, according to Gallup. As of July, 2022, there were still 2,394 people awaiting execution across the states. In 2020, the average amount of time a person had between sentencing and execution was nearly 19 years. Many die on death row before the government even makes it to them.

In the last few years, about 10 people a year were executed in the U.S. 

According to the Death Penalty Information Center, exonerations take a long time, too: “Half of all death-row exonerations have taken more than a decade, and the length of time between conviction and exoneration has continued to grow. More than half of the exonerations since 2013 have taken 25 years or more.”

By law, and morals, those who are sentenced to death are granted a special legal status which includes a checklist of remedies they can exhaust to challenge their death sentences before the executioner can ever carry out that function. In many cases, these post conviction legal challenges are attempted at an exuberant expense to taxpayers. It even cost trial courts and prosecutorial offices extra expenses to pursue the death penalty in the first place. These things all accumulate to render our nation’s attachment to capital punishment impractical. For Californians, it’s ‘good riddance.’

Admittedly, there are important questions related to the policy that may go unresolved indefinitely. Like is the death penalty actually a reliable deterrent against certain serious crimes to meet the public safety justification? (The overwhelming consensus among criminologists is that it is not.) Is eye for eye and life for life still an appropriate approach to criminal justice in our civilized and enlightened times? Is it cruel and unusual punishment like the constitutional language of the Eighth Amendment prohibits? Is it hypocritical, inconsistent, confusing, or mixed messaging for a society to sanction execution by the government while condemning it for common citizens? It’s obviously a public debate that won’t be settled in this article, if anywhere at all. 

In regards to the man interviewed, Mr. Steven Jones, it was not my intention here to scrutinize his past lifestyle or conduct. I chose to avoid graphic details and consideration for the family members of the victims of the crimes, who are also victims in their own rights. My approach to this article was to report on the closure of death row in California and begin to consider some of the ripple effects of that move. For a more detailed account of his upbringing, or his past lifestyle and mentality, you can read his self published autobiography, “Doomed From The Start: Have Heart, Have Money.”

Jovan Strong

Jovan Strong

Jovan “Aqil” Strong was raised in the Bay Area. Presently he is a peer mentor studying to become a certified alcohol and other drugs addiction counselor at Corcoran State Prison in California. He is also a freelance writer who covers culture and entertainment, mental health, mental wellness, social and economic justice, and the Islamic faith. For more follow him at on Instagram at KUF I snap back