Jeanne Woodford started at San Quentin State Prison as a correctional officer in 1978, weeks after graduating from college. She rose through the ranks, eventually becoming warden of the prison, and director of the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation. She returned to the Bay Area in 2006 to work as Chief of Adult Probation in San Francisco, and says she left the public sector because she was tired of managing shrinking budgets and ready to work on reforming the system. Earlier this year, Woodford became the Executive Director of Death Penalty Focus, an organization dedicated to ending capital punishment. I sat down with Woodford recently to talk about the move.
I know people stereotype correctional officers as being this monolithic breed of folks, and it’s actually a quite diverse pool, but people don’t think of correctional officers and people who’ve been in the system for a long time as being opposed to the death penalty. Were you always opposed to capital punishment?
Yes, I’ve always been opposed to the death penalty, and you’re correct that people do mischaracterize correctional officers, as they do many professions. But correctional officers come from many different backgrounds and many religions and I can tell you that a great number of people in the Department of Corrections oppose the death penalty, including correctional officers.
But you were, in your job, required to preside over several executions.
I did preside over four executions. And I think what the executions did for me was allow me to see this issue from many points of view. And it just really affirmed my belief that it’s time to get rid of capital punishment. In carrying out these executions, I came to really understand that it serves no one. Victims family members are not served by this punishment, our society is not made safer by this punishment. We carried out four executions over 20 years after the crime. By that time, the individual isn’t the same person and we spend millions of dollars getting to that point. And so few executions are carried out. So it’s not a deterrent. And we just can’t safeguard against executing innocent people.
I’ll tell you that when I started at San Quentin, people told me, ‘every inmate is going to tell you they’re innocent,’ and that’s just not the case. They don’t tell you they’re innocent. Yet, we have found many innocent people in our prison systems, including in the state of California. The thought of potentially executing an innocent individual is just too much to ask of any human being. Which is another big reason for ending capital punishment.
So, politically in California, capital punishment is considered a given—that people support it. I think the latest poll showed that about 70 percent of Californians say they support the death penalty. Since ending capital punishment would have to happen through a popular process, where do you see that changing?
I think that is our challenge. It has to be amended by an initiative, because it was voted in by the voters of California. So our challenge is to educate the public. And when the public is given the facts about the death penalty—that is costs more than the sentence of life without the possibility of parole. When people understand how long the process takes, and that you can’t shorten the process because if we did so, we’d end up executing innocent people, as other states have done. When given all the facts, and given the reality that there is really a sentence that’s life without the possibility of parole—and that’s something people are confused about, that there is a sentence where the only opportunity you’d have to leave is if you prove yourself innocent—they’re actually swayed to our side on this issue.
Having been in CDCR for a long time, what’s your assessment of the state of California prisons right now?
I think everybody truly understands now that our prisons are really overcrowded. And that we are probably locking up people for far too long and locking up people whose only crime is drug addiction. I think that we’re in for change. It’s been driven by the economy, but it’s also been an opportunity to educate the public about who’s in our prisons. I’m happy that the governor has come forward with his realignment proposal. Hopefully it will be funded soon, so we can keep non-violent offenders out of our prison system, keep them locally, and use our resources for prevention programs.
So obviously, when you talk about making big changes in this state when it comes to correctional policy, you have to talk about the California Correctional Peace Officers Association. To what extent do you think they still wield a lot of power in Sacramento, and say, have the influence to kill any initiative that would end the death penalty?
I think the CCPOA is still very powerful, but I think they’ve been evolving and changing in their views. They’ve been very supportive of the governor’s realignment plan. They are actually one of the groups that approached both candidates before the election with the idea that we have too many short-term offenders coming in and out of the prison system and that we need to do a better job to develop policy for those individuals. They identified the 47,000 individuals in 2009 who spent less than 90 days in state prison and realized that that’s a tremendous cost to our system and doesn’t serve public safety in any way. And I’m hopeful that they’ll continue to be very thoughtful about public policy issues.
So death row has been at San Quentin for a really long time. They just decided not to expand and renovate it. The facility there is pretty old and overcrowded. Do you think there’s a possibility death row will move somewhere else, move inland?
I was surprised to hear they decided to not build the new death row because there’s over 700 individuals with a death sentence in this state and we’ve certainly outgrown the original death row. In fact, in San Quentin, they’re into two other buildings. But there still needs to be a solution to what we’re going to do with the increase, if we’re going to continue this form of punishment. I don’t think the state will be successful if they try to move them to other prisons. The penal code says that male individuals sentenced to death will be housed at San Quentin State Prison. Efforts in the past to move those inmates to other facilities in the past have failed because other communities don’t want death row in their area. So I don’t believe that that’s the solution. The practical solution, the right solution, the solution that protects public safety is to commute the sentences of those individuals on death row to life without parole.