- The Washington Times - Saturday, July 7, 2001

SAN QUENTIN, Calif. (AP) — San Quentin State Prison, the forbidding, 149-year-old stone fortress that is home to California's death row, may have served its time.
Officials are considering closing the prison, or at least moving out the "worst of the worst" inmates.
One of the main problems with San Quentin: With its byzantine corridors built during the Gold Rush, the prison has become increasingly dangerous for guards.
The prison, home to the acid-green gas chamber now used in lethal injections, houses about 5,700 men, including the more than 550 occupants of death row.
While death row generally is one of the quietest spots in the prison, attacks on guards have tripled in the past year and a half in the Adjustment Center, where the most disruptive condemned men are sent, officials say. Forty-five of the center's 85 inmates have attacked guards.
"It just simply isn't as secure as it should be to have that kind of inmate there," said Stephen Green, assistant secretary of the state Youth and Adult Correctional Agency.
On a sunny day, San Quentin bears a passing resemblance to a grand resort, a sweeping expanse of red-roofed buildings beside the shimmering San Francisco Bay. Up close, razor wire, cracked concrete and gun towers reveal the place as an aging fortress.
The prison began in 1852 when a two-masted ship dropped anchor off Point Quentin, loaded with convicts who were put to work laying stone.
No one guessed that this windy, briny outpost would one day become a stunning suburb connected to San Francisco by the graceful Golden Gate Bridge — or realized that using sea water to mix the concrete and building the place on landfill would be a foolish mistake in earthquake country.
The architectural style is long on history — the tall, spiked gate that admitted stagecoach robber Black Bart still clangs shut behind modern-day visitors — but short on efficiency and safety. Built piece by uncoordinated piece, San Quentin has blind spots and murky alcoves.
In 1999-2000, it cost $11.3 million to cover basic costs at San Quentin, including maintenance. The bill for 9-year-old Wasco State Prison, which has about the same number of inmates, was $8.4 million.
Part of the nation's largest prison system — California has 160,000 inmates — San Quentin does not have the no-contact design of modern prisons, which use remote-control doors and other innovations to keep prisoners separate from guards.
Instead, guards on death row have constant hand-to-hand dealings with inmates, pushing in and retrieving food trays, exchanging clean laundry for dirty, and escorting prisoners to the showers and exercise yards. The cells have metal screens across the bars, but they are not enough to stop inmates from hurling urine and feces at passing guards.
Officers also are at risk when they collect food trays. The design of the food slot means the guard and inmate are inches apart, and if the officer is distracted, sometimes intentionally by another inmate, the prisoner can pull the officer's hands through the slot.

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