LOS ANGELES (FinalCall.com) – Politicians and death penalty opponents are outraged over revelation that the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation (CDCR) began construction on a new death chamber at San Quentin State Prison, without notifying state lawmakers or the public.

Activists charge that the problem is three-fold: 1) The “secret” construction occurs during a federal review of California’s execution process and San Quentin Death Chamber facilities; 2) It is shrouded beneath a high-profile issue; and 3) The CDCR is using prisoners to build the chamber.

Seth Unger, CDCR Press Secretary, told The Final Call that the $399,000 edifice is being built in an effort to comply with a federal judge’s mandate that the facility and its lethal injection protocols be revamped, and that it is part of Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger’s plan to present a remodeled lethal injection facility by a May 15 deadline. Late last year, Judge Jeremy Fogel placed a moratorium on all California executions, ruling that the current method of lethal injection is a violation of a constitutional ban on cruel and unusual punishment.


Judge Fogel’s decision stemmed from a lawsuit filed by Michael Morales, a San Quentin Death Row inmate, convicted of raping and stabbing 17-year-old Terri Winchell in 1981. After the December 2005 lengthy torture and execution of Stanley “Tookie” Williams, a Nobel Peace Prize nominee and reformed founder of the Crips street gang, Mr. Morales’ lawyers argued that lethal injections violate the Constitution’s ban on cruel and unusual punishment.

The cost to build the death chamber fell just below the $400,000 quota, which would require legislative approval. “Something this big and this controversial should never be hidden,” Senator Gloria Romero (D-Los Angeles) stated. At press time, she was set to convene a hearing for CDCR officials to detail the project and its cost estimates.

Mr. Unger stated that the construction price falls under a minimum capital outlay plan, which gives the state flexibility. Although the outlay permits the Department to forego the typical budget process, which includes presentations, revisions and early summer debates, he said the issue is still slated for a quarterly report to the legislature.

Minister Keith Muhammad of Muhammad’s Mosque No. 26B in Oakland, Calif. said that the process of building the new death chamber bears serious implications for the masses–primarily Black and Latino people–incarcerated.

“This demonstrates, once again, the state’s desire to incarcerate and kill, rather than educate and cultivate. If they can find it in the budget to build new death chambers; then it certainly would be good if they could find it in the budget to repair our schools,” he stated.

Danielle Heck, a spokesperson for the Campaign to End the Death Penalty, opined that the fact that a new death chamber could be built without public, legislative or media knowledge at a time when the death penalty is being called into question demonstrates the lack of transparency or accountability within the criminal justice system.

“Everything about [Gov.] Schwarzenegger’s administration building the new death chamber under a veil of secrecy illustrates how the whole criminal justice system is rotten to the core. Death penalty activists like myself hear about the mistreatment of inmates all the time, but they have little to no recourse,” Ms. Heck stated.

Ms. Heck called the CDCR’s actions the administrations’ rush to crank up its death machine, rather than reviewing the constitutionality of the way the death penalty is administered in California. She further positioned that the new chamber is Gov. Schwarzenegger’s push against Judge Fogel’s ruling, which foiled plans to speed up the number of executions they wanted to carry out starting with Mr. Williams.

Unfortunately for the administration, she said, the campaign built around Mr. Williams caused many people to examine their views about the death penalty, expose its numerous hypocrisies, and turn against it.

“It further exposed the disgusting reality of the execution process as witnessed and reported on by the people that viewed the execution of Stan ‘Tookie’ Williams. The point is that the death penalty is broken and can’t be fixed. It doesn’t matter if California builds a new execution chamber, finds the right concoction of drugs, or gets the right certified people to carry out the executions. The State of California needs to get out of the business of killing people and quit wasting our taxpayer money to do it,” Ms. Heck insisted.

San Quentin is the oldest prison in California and houses 5,222 prisoners, 619 of them condemned inmates, who have moved beyond conditions of rehabilitative confinement to California’s concentration camp tactics, stated activist Barbara Becnel, who worked with Mr. Williams for 13 years and helped organize an international campaign for his clemency.

“Utilizing the prisoners to build the death chamber to kill other prisoners is every bit as bad as the people who were imprisoned during World War II at concentration camps, who were asked to build the apparatus that would kill either themselves or family members, because many of the people who are imprisoned in San Quentin are in fact the friends or family members of the people on Death Row,” Ms. Becnel charged.

A long time friend, publicist and advocate of Mr. Williams, Ms. Becnel added that it is stunning that prisoners were made to work on the project at slave wages. “This is not only cheap prison labor, but this truly harkens back to World War II, and as many know, Arnold Schwarzenegger’s father was a Nazi. That’s part of the factual historical record, and here he is resorting to Nazi tactics. That’s pretty astonishing and horrific,” she said.