He greeted me with a smile that I didn’t think would belong to a man who has spent almost 20 years on death row.
When I reached the visiting room at San Quentin State Prison, death row inmate William “Bill” Clark was waiting for me in a metal enclosure tall enough to accommodate his towering height and with just enough room for two plastic chairs, a footstool doubling as a table and a trash can.
But even as he waited for the guards to take off his handcuffs, Clark didn’t seem to notice the prison surroundings at all — he began talking to me in a conversational tone.
In 1996, a jury convicted Clark for orchestrating a computer store robbery in 1991 that resulted in the murder of one victim, in addition to organizing the murder of a witness to the attempted robbery in 1994. Clark was sentenced to death in 1997 — a decision that the California Supreme Court maintained in June 2016 in an appeal that Clark filed, although he was cleared of previous special-circumstance findings of burglary-murder and robbery-murder.
Notably, the state Supreme Court largely upheld Prop. 66, a ballot initiative that expedites the execution process, on Thursday.
According to Clark, there are seven prison yards where many recreational activities are offered, such as cards, dominoes, basketball and Scrabble.
Death row inmates also have access to services, including those for mental health and religion, Clark said in one of the many email conversations conducted via his friend Mark Fleming — conversations that required a middleman because lines of communication between death row inmates and citizens are strictly regulated.
“They didn’t stop being human when they committed their crimes.”
– George Williams
George Williams, the Catholic chaplain at San Quentin State Prison, is a provider of one such religious service. He sees it as his duty to help the inmates find self-worth, especially given that society does not value them the same way it values citizens, he explained.
“We forget that all the people in prison are still human beings,” Williams said. “They didn’t stop being human when they committed their crimes.”
Finding freedom through art
Clark said it was only in prison that he finally found the time to fully devote himself to his writing endeavors. He explained that he was inspired to start writing since about 2000 by Stanley Tookie Williams III, a co-founder of the Crips gang, who was executed in 2005.
But because there are no desks in the prison cells, Clark said he and other inmates must create makeshift desks in order to write. Clark does this by taking a folded blanket and placing it on his toilet seat. He then uses his bedframe as a desk.
Clark has authored many different genres of literature, including children’s books, poetry and essays — many of which are inspired by his experiences in prison. According to an email, “East Block,” one of Clark’s pieces, is a stage play based on his firsthand account of life on death row.
Despite the many restrictions that prison life places upon him, Clark said he aspires to push his work beyond the prison walls to the outside world, relying on friends and allies to create opportunities for the publication of his writings.
“Sure, my body is locked up, but my heart, mind and spirit are free,” Clark said in an email.
Prison economy 101
Another way inmates can exercise the little freedom they have is through the purchase of various goods at the prison store. According to Clark, inmates can buy anything from store food to hobby supplies with money typically sent to them by their family members.
“Money can buy everything but freedom.”
– William “Bill” Clark
Because many aspects of prison life — including prison attire and meal options — are regulated, controlled and standardized, money allows inmates to personalize their lifestyles. As such, money is highly valued in prison.
“Money can buy everything but freedom,” Clark said.
But many prison fights arise from monetary disputes stemming from unpaid debts, blackmail or intimidation, Clark said.
Prison gangs are another factor that contribute to violence in prison life, according to San Quentin State Prison spokesperson Lt. Sam Robinson. He said that it is why prison guards take measures to combat violence, such as providing educational services, interfering with illegal activities and separating dangerous individuals.
“None of (the prison gangs) are truly designed to benefit any individual within the environment of a prison,” Robinson said. “They’re here to cause chaos and confusion.”
A secret system
Prisoners have also managed to find their own way around some of the many restrictions placed on them. Clark alleged, for example, that prisoners have devised a way to transport small items from one cell to another on the same or nearby floors — a method they call “fishing.”
The sender will first pull out strings from their underwear and tie them together to create a cord. He then ties a zip-close bag of supplies to one end and an empty toothpaste tube filled with either soap or batteries to the other, which acts as a weight. The whole contraption is then slid across the floor when the sender and recipient are both on the same floor, or it is dangled out windows to recipients that are on the floors below.
On the inside, looking out
While Clark was out in the free world, he said he had too many responsibilities and too little time to keep up with current events. Now that he is in prison, however, Clark said he has become much more informed.
Clark said inmates typically discuss topics such as prison conditions, sports, current events and loved ones. Much of what they know about the outside world they learn through television, Clark explained in an email.
He also said he makes a point of not adapting to prison life. To decorate his cell, for example, would be to accept it as home. Nor does he wear accessories like some of the other inmates. Instead, he refuses to internalize the prison environment.
“He also said he makes a point of not adapting to prison life.”
Although Clark has kept in touch with his family members through phone calls during his incarceration, he said he has not seen his family for the past 25 years.
“I want them to remember me as a free man,” Clark said.
Contact Adelaide Chen at [email protected].