Every morning, Jeanne Woodford would wake up at dawn and think over her to-do list for what she calls the “planning process to murder someone.” As the San Quentin warden from 1999 to 2004, she was in charge of all of California’s executions.
It was her job to meet with the death row inmates—many of whom she had gotten to know over her twenty-six years at the prison—during their last days. She made sure they were able to call their families and their lawyers. She listened to them talk about their lives and childhoods. And she answered their questions: “Will it hurt?” and “What will happen to my body?”
“I really brought the pain of the job home with me,” says Woodford, now fifty-eight. “Reading through a file, I would break down crying because I can’t even imagine how any human being can do that to another human being. There were four or five years when I was a single parent, when I didn’t turn the lights off at my house at night.”
Families of the victim had to be prepared for watching the executions, too. Some resisted but their lawyers insisted, otherwise the governor could doubt their seriousness and grant clemency. Some asked, “Will this make me feel better?” She knew the answer was most likely no, but all she’d say was, “I don’t know.”
Some of the other corrections officers involved in the executions would seek religious counseling. They never discussed their feelings about what it was like to help kill someone on the job, but Woodford says that afterward they would say to each other, “Did we really make anyone safer?”
During her thirty years in corrections—climbing the ranks from San Quentin guard to the prison’s first female warden, and eventually leading the California Department of Corrections—Woodford was silently but adamantly opposed to the death penalty. She was renowned for a progressive approach to criminal justice reform, stressing rehabilitation, reentry, and prevention, but she never addressed capital punishment.
That changed last May, when she became the executive director of Death Penalty Focus, one of the nation’s largest anti-death-penalty advocacy groups.
“I don’t want anyone to think that I took this job because in my mind it makes up for everything I’ve been involved in,” she says. “I don’t want to be let off the hook so easily. But I do think that it will help end the death penalty because I have seen it from every point of view, and I can articulate it in ways that other people can’t.”
“Having a conversation about the death penalty is very different when you aren’t responsible for doing it,” says Roderick Hickman, the secretary of the California Department of Corrections while Woodford was warden. “A lot of different people say, ‘I’m for it.’ I say, ‘OK, then you come on down and execute them.’ ” He says being a warden at San Quentin is an exercise of applied ethics: “Everyone involved has some sort of personal ethical dilemma that they have to resolve within themselves.”
Woodford has the potential to become one of the most powerful voices in the abolition movement, given her unique position.
“This isn’t a bleeding heart do-gooder,” says Elaine Leeder, dean of Sonoma State’s School of Social Sciences, who has worked with lifers at San Quentin. “She has actually done these painful things like killing someone for the state. Having lived it and walked it means she will have a great impact.”
“We have been on the outside looking in, and she provides inside connections,” says Mike Farrell, the former M.A.S.H. star who is president of Death Penalty Focus. “We have had governors and former wardens we could draw on before, but never one saying, ‘I’m not just with you, but I want to be part of the organization.’ ”
I met Woodford in Death Penalty Focus’s San Francisco office, which is so cramped we had to move around the folding chairs in order to close the door. To the constant bing of her overflowing e-mail inbox, Woodford made the usual arguments against the death penalty: the exorbitant cost, the fact it isn’t a true deterrent, the wrongful executions. But she proceeded to make new ones related to her own experience.
“Very few people really understand how complicated death row issues are,” she says.
Her first claim is that the inmates she executed had changed a lot since they had committed their crimes. “I knew that at the point of execution they weren’t the same person,” she says.
Second, “they clearly can’t make it in society, but within the prison they weren’t a problem; they weren’t a threat to anyone,” she says.
And third, criminologists could have studied these inmates: “Some were mentally ill, low-functioning individuals who we should want to know a lot more about if we ever want to figure out how to prevent these kinds of horrific crimes.”
Soon after starting the job, Woodford reread a book by a former San Quentin warden, Clinton T. Duffy. The book’s title, 88 Men and 2 Women, comes from the number of executions that happened under Duffy’s watch. Duffy is a famed prison reformer, having ended corporal punishment and having established vocational training, an Alcoholics Anonymous program, and a prison newspaper. He also protested the death penalty while still at the helm.
“It must have been hard for his staff to know they were doing something the leadership didn’t believe in,” says Woodford. “I did what I thought was right for the staff. I told myself they are looking to you and you can’t break down or talk about whether it’s right or wrong.”
When I pressed Woodford on why she didn’t refuse to carry out the executions, she responded, “I was just a body. If I left, another body would be brought in to carry it out. When you are in corrections, you are really trained not to think about the sentences of people and that you aren’t the judge of anybody.” Instead, she tried to bring a level of dignity and empathy to the process. “Maybe it was my rationale, but I tried to be kind to everyone, and told myself that was important,” she says.
Under her watch, San Quentin put four men to death.
Mannie Babbit, whose brother had testified against him with the promise that Mannie wouldn’t get the death penalty, was executed in May 1999.
Darrell Rich, a.k.a. the Hilltop Rapist, whose last word was “peace,” was killed in 2000.
Stephen Wayne Anderson was executed in 2002 for murdering an eighty-one-year-old at close range during a burglary.
Robert Lee Massie volunteered to be executed in 2001 for a murder he committed while on parole in the 1970s. Woodford, who knew Massie well and had seen him transform himself into a better person, says his volunteering actually made it harder since he had given up all the will to fight.
“I don’t consider myself a murderer,” says Woodford. “There are others who probably would, but I do view myself as someone who was asked to carry out a law that really is so inappropriate for our society and so inconsistent with our values as a nation.”
Woodford followed in Duffy’s footsteps by bringing extensive rehabilitation and reform programs to San Quentin. It was famous for its 3,000 volunteers who helped run prison programs, ranging from an inmate-run newspaper to sports teams, gardening, yoga, creative writing, art, and parenting classes. Inmates could earn their GED and college degrees. Even the 600-odd inmates on death row who were only allowed out of their cells for ten hours a week for exercise in cage-like pens were able to take correspondence courses.
“We send people away to prison for indeterminate sentences and expect nothing from them other than to do their time,” says Woodford. “People could be working, giving back in some way, however little it is, to our society and in other ways paying restitution to the victims. A system that doesn’t have accountability for people to change and to improve who they are is just unacceptable.”
Woodford, now a mother of five, grew up in a small town of barely 100 in California’s West Marin. She was a cheerleader and member of the Future Farmers of America in high school. Her mother was a Berkeley graduate and a teacher and her father an Italian immigrant rancher. She got her degree at Sonoma State’s criminal justice program, with the hopes of becoming a youth counselor. However, three strikes and Proposition 13 had just passed, meaning serious cuts to most social programs but an expanse of prisons. When prison recruiters showed up a few weeks before graduation, touting a new age of corrections, she signed up, in part intrigued at being one of the few female prison guards.
“I went there really out of curiosity, and in many ways fell in love with the work,” she says. “It was tough as a woman, but that which doesn’t kill you makes you stronger. I survived and began to get promoted through the ranks and saw I could have an impact.”
She understands the problems of prison crowding better than almost anyone. She knows it can lead to violence and even riots: “We actually had inmates who had gone months without leaving their cells to go out and exercise at all. When you begin to look at facts, you begin to realize: Who wouldn’t behave that way?”
During Woodford’s time, there were numerous lawsuits filed by prisoners, including two that resulted in the Supreme Court decision last year that California prison overcrowding creates such awful conditions as to be unconstitutional.
“My reaction was: ‘What took you so long?’ ” says Woodford. She welcomed the cases since they could force action on problems that she couldn’t solve from the inside. When she was accused during another trial of retaliating against inmates who made complaints, she told the judge, “Are you kidding me? If we could, we would hug this guy we are so thankful for what he is doing. Over the years the prison has slowly deteriorated and the budget kept being cut. We would jump up and down and yell about it, but spending money on prisons just isn’t people’s priority.”
In 2004, when then-Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger appointed Woodford to lead the California Department of Corrections, sexism was even worse than in the prisons, she says.
“In Sacramento, there is still a good old boys network,” she says. “Many individuals believe the purpose of prison is containment, control, and punishment. As a woman, when you try to talk about it in a different way, it’s often dismissed as, ‘She is just soft on crime because isn’t that really what women are about. They don’t really understand the issue like we do.’ ”
Rehabilitation and reentry programs have been proven to significantly reduce recidivism and save money, yet she couldn’t find supporters. She became increasingly frustrated in her job and resigned in 2006.
“I wasn’t going to sit up there and pretend that we were heading in the right direction,” she says. “If someone said to me, ‘Politics are tough in Sacramento, but if you hang in there for five years you will see a change,’ I could’ve been more patient, but I just didn’t see a road to success.”
When she started, Death Penalty Focus had forty-seven current and former judges, prosecutors, police, and corrections officers sign a petition against the death penalty. With her connections, Woodford has brought that number up to more than 100, including Gil Garcetti, the former Los Angeles district attorney.
She has worked out better than Death Penalty Focus could have imagined. At her job interview, one board member asked her how she would feel about attending a vigil outside of San Quentin if there were another execution. According to Farrell, she said she was worried about being in an adversarial position with people she has known and liked over the years. But after giving it a lot of thought, Woodford decided she could help keep protesters respectful, and reach sympathizers among those who work inside the prison walls.
Farrell praises Woodford’s contributions: “Her willingness to stand up in such a public way and help strategize is a magnificent lesson for everyone about humanity on both sides of the issue.”
Justine Sharrock is a San Francisco-based journalist and author of “Tortured: When Good Soldiers Do Bad Things.”