George Raine/Catholic San Francisco
Jeanne Woodford is pictured near her office on Market Street in San Francisco.
Former San Quentin warden leads campaign to end death penalty
June 21st, 2011
By George Raine
For years, when she was a single parent, Jeanne Woodford wouldn’t turn the lights out in her house. In a 30-plus-year career in corrections and as a former warden of San Quentin State Prison, she has known horrific crimes, and worthy punishment.
She took no pleasure, however, in being a party to executions. There were four on her watch.
“Just imagine asking public servants to wake up every day and have them go to work planning to kill somebody,” said Woodford, who now leads a campaign to eliminate capital punishment in the nation. “It takes a toll on you. You begin to realize how much you are affected by participating in an execution. You have spent 30 to 60 days planning to kill somebody. How can that not affect you?”
Woodford, newly appointed as executive director of Death Penalty Focus, a San Francisco-based nonprofit dedicated to eliminating the death penalty in favor of prison terms without the possibility of parole, is not a recent convert to the cause. A lifelong Catholic, she long opposed capital punishment on moral grounds, although she said she does not try to convince people regarding personal moral decisions.
Rather, she has taken the Death Penalty Focus position to make a case that cost, the potential for executing an innocent person, the lack of assistance to victims, the belief that the death penalty does not deter crime “and many other practical reasons” argue for its abolition.
Woodford also believes the death penalty does not bring resolution to the extended circle of victims and otherwise is a hollow promise.
“It doesn’t seem to me that the death penalty brings any solution,” said Woodford.
A year-old Field Poll found that 70 percent of California voters support the death penalty, although about 42 percent would opt to impose a sentence of life in prison without the possibility of parole. However, a poll by David Binder Research in San Francisco, released in April, showed much more support for the alternative: 63 percent in the poll supported converting all current death row sentences to life imprisonment without any possibility of parole.
Binder Research framed the poll question in fiscal terms, telling voters of California’s need to close a budget gap. Woodford and Death Penalty Focus argue that converting the sentences will lead to a $1 billion savings over five years.
The number comes from the California Commission on the Fair Administration of Justice, a commission formed by the Legislature in 2006, which found that the annual cost of the death penalty above and beyond the cost of incarcerating prisoners for life is at least $125 million annually (largely appellate court costs). The $125 million times five is $625, along with some $400 million in death row housing estimated by the state adds to $1 billion.
“Our goal is to end capital punishment in California and across the nation,” said Woodford. “We are hoping to convince the governor that he should commute the sentences for those on death row. He (Gov. Jerry Brown) made the decision not to build a new death row,” she said, referring to Brown’s cancelation in April of a $356 million replacement death row as the state can’t afford, “and now the public is in favor of commuting sentences,” said Woodford.
Does that give Death Penalty Focus encouragement? “We hope,” said Woodford.
The Catholic Church vigorously opposes capital punishment. The church teaches that each person is created in God’s image and that killing is wrong. The U.S. bishops, in a 1999 statement, also said the death penalty perpetuates a cycle of violence and promotes “a sense of vengeance in our culture.” In 2010, the California Catholic Conference said life without the possibility of parole is an alternative that protects society.
Woodford, too, believes that the cycle of violence of crime can be interrupted by programs helpful to inmates.
“The doors to a prison swing both ways,” she said. “For some people the door opens only going in and not going out and that is appropriate. For those people for whom the door swings both ways, we need to make sure we are not sending people out worse than when they came in.”
Woodford sought to introduce rehabilitation into the overcrowded and many will say broken state corrections system.
Indeed, the California Department of Corrections was renamed the Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation during her tenure as department head appointed by Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger. Woodford, a native of West Marin County, had risen in the ranks at San Quentin to become warden, beginning her career as an officer at the prison in 1978.
She had some successes in rehabilitating prisoners. For example, she created the “success dorm” at San Quentin, which only housed inmates paroling within two years and who participated in three self-help groups a week and developed a successful parole plan, but often she was not supported by governors of both major parties as they were unwilling to risk political or budgetary capital, she said.
“And so all the suggestions I made to the governor (Schwarzenegger) were delayed, the governor saying, ‘After the election.’ My response was, ‘There is always an election.’ Everybody is always looking at the next election instead of looking at what constitutes good public policy,” said Woodford.
Frank Zimring, a professor of law at the UC Berkeley School of Law, has followed Woodford’s career – he is also a member of the Death Penalty Focus Advisory Board – and said, “There is in American history a long tradition of prison wardens who identify with the humanity and aspirations of the prisoners. You also have a divide between administrators who saw this as an adversarial relationship and administrators who saw it as a branch of human services, and Jeanne Woodford came from the psychology of human services. It’s a great tradition.”
In her new role, he said, Woodford “completes a transition which she has been making personally for a long time. I think it is a way of exploiting systemic credibility – the fact that she paid at the office on an issue of high moral principle.”
From the June 24, 2011 issue of Catholic San Francisco.