CA Death Row Guard: ‘I Have To Leave My Feelings At The Gate’


Hundreds of men live in Caifornia’s death row, condemned to death for heinous crimes, their punishments delayed for reasons political and legal. Hundreds of other men (and women) also do time on death row in San Quentin Prison, one shift at a time, says the Sacramento Bee. On the best days, working as a correctional officer with condemned men is a boring job. On the worst, it's a nerve-wracking struggle to control your own emotions and the actions of angry, depressed, manipulative, ultra-violent inmates with nothing to lose. “Me personally, I have to leave my feelings at the gate,” said death row officer S. Salias, who declined to give his full name during a rare media tour of death row and a new psychiatric unit for condemned men. “And when I leave here, I leave my personal stress here.” Salias works in a wing of the Adjustment Center, a 102-cell unit where the most violence-prone condemned men live in isolation behind heavy doors that keep them from throwing feces, urine or other bodily fluids at staff.

While other death row inmates, like San Quentin's general population, can briefly congregate in yards enclosed with fences and razor wire, the Adjustment Center's inmates spend their limited time outside in rows of chain-link cages collectively reminiscent of an oversized kennel. “One inmate put four staff into retirement” by viciously kicking them, said prison spokesman Lt. Sam Robinson, who worked on death row for a decade. The inmate now wears permanent leg restraints. Robinson engages in friendly banter with inmates he knew from his years on the row. Salias keeps the chit-chat to a minimum. He worries that idle conversation will dull his vigilance, and he places the highest priority on “always being alert” to protect himself and his coworkers. “Sure, I'll ask (the inmates) how the weather was outside in the yard or how their night went,” said Salias, who was a district manager for a water company before signing on with the state. “But I don't ask them how they're feeling, how they're doing. I just keep it simple.”

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