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California to close death row and convert it into a ‘positive, healing environment’

The largest death row facility in the United States is set to close following an announcement by California governor Gavin Newsom.

Officials say the death row at San Quentin State Prison will instead become a “positive, healing environment” following the closure of the facility in two years time.

A spokesperson for the Democrat governor said on Monday: “We are starting the process of closing death row to repurpose and transform the current housing units into something innovative and anchored in rehabilitation”.

It follows Mr Newsom’s pledge to close the execution facility during his campaign for governor in 2018.

California last carried out an execution in 2006, though it one of 28 states that has maintained a death row along with the federal government.

A moratorium on executions was already put in place in 2019 and the state’s execution chamber at San Quentin, north of San Francisco, was shut down.

Some 116 of the state’s 673 death row inmates have been transferred to one of seven other prisons that have maximum security facilities in California, as part of the decommissioning process.

While other states like Illinois have abolished executions, California is merging its condemned inmates into the general prison population with no expectation that any will face execution anytime in the near future.

The move in California passed a ballot measure approved six years ago also required condemned inmates to participate in prison jobs, with 70 per cent of the restitution to their victims.

By the end of last year, more than $49,000 in restitution had been collected under the pilot programme.

The move by California echoes similar moves across the US where support for the death penalty has been steadily decreasing.

Polling by organisations such as Gallup, suggest that only 54 per cent of the US public currently supports the death penalty, a figure that is a 50-year low.

In fact, as many as 60 per cent of Americans say they would prefer not to impose the death penalty if a punishment of life without parole was an alternative.

“The 60 per cent to 36 per cent advantage for life imprisonment marks a shift from the past two decades, when Americans were mostly divided in their views of the better punishment for murder,” Gallup said in a 2019 report.

“During the 1980s and 1990s, consistent majorities thought the death penalty was the better option for convicted murderers.”

In December 2021, Virginia became the first southern state in the country to ban the use of the death penalty. That year also just 11 people were put to death, the fewest since 1988.

Experts said the pandemic contributed to these historically low numbers, but that the trend was clear, and that 202 marked the seventh consecutive year where there were fewer than 50 death sentences and 30 executions.

“The death penalty grew increasingly geographically isolated in 2021 and public support dropped to its lowest levels  in a-half-century,” said Robert Dunham, Executive Director of the Death Penalty Information Centre.

“Virginia’s repeal created a death-penalty-free zone along the US Atlantic coast that now runs from the Canadian border of Maine to the northern border of the Carolinas. In the west, an execution-free zone spans the Pacific coast from Alaska to Mexico.”

Activists against the death penalty have long highlighted what they say is a racial discrimination embedded in the criminal justice system.

Around 33 per cent of of people executed are Black, while Black people only account for 14 per of the population.

The Independent and the nonprofit Responsible Business Initiative for Justice (RBIJ) have launched a joint campaign calling for an end to the death penalty in the US. The RBIJ has attracted more than 150 well-known signatories to their Business Leaders Declaration Against the Death Penalty – with The Independent as the latest on the list. We join high-profile executives like Ariana Huffington, Facebook’s Sheryl Sandberg, and Virgin Group founder Sir Richard Branson as part of this initiative and are making a pledge to highlight the injustices of the death penalty in our coverage.

Additional reporting by Associated Press.

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