14 March 2000
       "Forgive me for just dropping off like that...ugggh! I have losts of excuses...none too good though. In any case, I'm repentant. 

       "We had a small crisis a few weeks ago. Our cell block began to fill with smoke and the Fire Marshall couldn't figure out where the fire started so the block had to be evacuated. Since this is death row the evacuation entailed some pretty serious security. Death row is on the sixth floor with a solid floor which separates us from the lower tiers, so we can't see or hear them. Access to death row is by elevator only which stops only at the top floor. Prison staff has nick-named my residence the 'Shelf" - we are 'put on the shelf' so to speak. I'm just a jar of pickles it seems. Or perhaps...I could be a bottle of fine wine quietly maturing...yeah right. 

      "Evacuating us involved a well established security-ridden procedure where all staff at home and on the gorunds, whether security employees or just secretaries, are called in to make a human gauntlet some half mile long. It took nearly 500 employees to evacuate the 64 of us who live on the Shelf...all the time smoke bellowing about. It was a surreal experience. Turned out, the fire was merely a small electrical burn in the ventilation system. 

      "As death row residences go, there are few better than San Quentin. The Shelf is where all the 'older' cons are kept, me being one, and since we usually stay out of trouble we are the ones who fill the 64 cells here. The other 500 or so death row prisoners are kept in East Block, which is just a regular cell block. Crazy stuff happens on East Block. But here where I am we're all sort of just into living as peaceably as possible in this place. 

      "I'm pretty fortunate in my opinion. I've seen those new prisons all over the nation with their neon lighting, tiled floors, and pale yellow cell walls. Living in one of those antiseptic environments would have driven me nuts long ago. In contrast, San Quentin was built nearly 150 years ago. It started as a barge out in the bay where Chinese immigrant prisoners were kept. As time passed, cell blocks were built on the shore. My block was built some seventy years ago from large granite stones. The plumbing is ancient and often bad, there is cracks in all the walls, and many fear us crashing to the ground with a good quake. But to be honest, I'd rather be in this Shawshank type of setting than some modern institution. At least there's a little ambiance here...smile. 

      "Until a few yers ago, before they remodeled, the windows were all broken out. When it stormed the bay wind would blow the rain right through the windows and into your cell. You had to batten down the hatches. When it was hot the walls would sweat, and temperature changes made the pipes bellow haunting noises all night. That's atmosphere...let's you know you live somewhere. There were hundreds of cats and birds that lived in the blocks. The birds just flew in and out through the broken windows. All kinds, from finches to robins and even the occasional San Francisco parrot. Some guys would capture one or two for pets. I had two finches. The cats were prison cats...mean suckers raised by themselves in the block alleys and conduits which line the cement walls. To grab a hold of one was to insure having your hand tore up by the meanest little bag of fur you ever saw in your life. But now, the animals are all gone, we have new windows and forced air heating. I miss the wind."

- William C. Payton
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