There are about 3,270 men and women on death row in US state and Federal prisons. There are nearly 700 in California. One of them is Dean Phillip Carter. In 1990 the Alaska-born TV cameraman was convicted of raping and
strangling five young women in a three-week
crime spree in California in 1984. Described as “an absolutely awful, non-human being” by the prosecution, he was given a death sentence and has been in San Quentin Prison
ever since. His appeal to the state Supreme Court has been denied. He is now 54. Below
are some of his reflections about prison together with answers to questions
posed to him by MercatorNet.
I am sitting here in my cell on Death Row
in San Quentin Prison… I [would like to] give you a perspective of the Death
Penalty, the justice (or “just-us”, as a wise man once said) system,
life in prison and hopefully I can give you a reasonably coherent account of
what it is like from where I sit. You have all heard what the media,
politicians, and others who have their own agenda, have to say about crime and
the Death Penalty, so maybe I can provide some balance to that.
Although I said that I do not intend to
discuss my case, I want to say that I vehemently deny committing the crimes
that I am sitting here on Death Row for. The reason that I mention this is
because I feel it is important for you to know this since it is why I have the
attitudes and opinions that I will be talking about…
Trying to explain what life on Death Row is
like, fighting for your life in the court system, and trying to keep a grip on
your sanity in the process: one of the difficult things is to keep your
perspective and not let yourself become overwhelmed by the incredible pressure
and stress that you have to deal with. Not just in dealing with the system, but
also in just trying to stay alive and survive from day to day in here.
There are people in here that give up and
commit suicide, others slowly lose their mind and end up being medicated. The
prison is concerned to the point that anyone here is able to function from day
to day until they are to be executed and psychiatric drugs help towards that
There are so many different dynamics
involved that I seriously doubt if it is possible to adequately explain what
it’s like. It would be like somebody from another country asking you to explain
what America is like. You can talk in generalities, but when it gets down to
the nuances that really get to the heart of it, you just cannot put it into
words that will do it justice. The best I can do is talk about some of my
experiences and observations and let you draw your own conclusions based on
I am not a spokesman for anyone else on
Death Row, or in prison, or the county jails, nor is it my intent to be one.
Every person going through the system has their own thoughts and opinions about
this insane environment that we try to survive in and I wouldn’t presume to
speak for them. But you are stuck with me and, even though I will try to be
objective about it, I can’t help but be subjective in many of the things I will
say. You can take what I say with a grain of salt, you might think that I am
full of shit, or you might agree with what I say, all I want is for you to keep
from making a judgment until you hear what I say. The news media says that more
than 80 percent of you support the death penalty and since we all seem to dance
to whatever tune the news media plays, I will assume that most of you are not
sympathetic towards me, or the others sitting on Death Row. All I ask is that
you keep an open mind.
There is the sense that people on Death Row
are slobbering animals that should be kept in a cage and executed as soon as
can be arranged. I have even heard on talk shows where people have advocated an
electric chair right in the courtroom, and as soon as the verdict is rendered,
strap the person in and cook them. Never mind that the system makes mistakes,
what are a few innocent people being killed, as long as you can get rid of the
others in the process.
But most of the people on Death Row are
fairly normal. Sure, there are the ones here that I would never turn my back
on. There are some people here that would make Hannibal Lecter seems like a
nice guy. But as I said, most guys here are not slobbering lunatics or cold-blooded
killers – but there are some here that could be put in that category.
Are prisoners treated with dignity? Prisons
and county jails are (by accident or design) institutions where one of the
first things you surrender is your dignity. I suspect it is one of the control
points used by these institutions to make the prisoners more docile and have
them comply with authority.
Am I surprised by the abuses in Abu Ghraib?
I would have been surprised if these sorts of abuses were not happening. From
what I understand about the military jailers involved, they were military
police and not trained in running a jail or in how to treat prisoners. Plus the
encouragement of the intelligence people to treat the prisoners in the manner
they did, it was an inevitable outcome. In any prison (in the Western world)
you have abuses happening. It runs the gamut from institutionalised forms of
abuse down the individual (specific guards) who are supposedly trained
individuals, unlike those jailers in Abu Ghraib.
Do I feel forgotten, or regarded as a
non-person by the California government? I suspect those who have non-capital
offenses and are doing a relatively small sentence (5 to 10 years) would feel
forgotten or made to feel like non-persons. But those with a death sentence are
never forgotten by the government. But we are made to feel non-human in the
death penalty process.
of Dean Carter’s letters can be found at a website maintained by his
supporters, Dead Man Talking. An extensive report about his crimes and his conviction can be found on the Los Angeles Times website.