California’s Longest Serving Death-Row Prisoner On Pain, Survival and Native Identity

California’s Longest Serving Death-Row Prisoner On Pain, Survival and Native Identity

Douglas Ray Stankewitz is California’s longest-serving death-row prisoner. The 63-year-old Monache and Cherokee Indian from the Major Sandy Rancheria has spent 43 decades in San Quentin State Prison for a crime he says he didn’t commit: the Feb. 8, 1978 carjacking and murder of 21-calendar year-previous Theresa Graybeal in Fresno, California. (Stankewitz suggests that whilst he was in the group of young people who to begin with drove Graybeal’s motor vehicle, he didn’t carjack or kill her.)

Considering the fact that his conviction at age 20, Stankewitz’s everyday living has been a authorized roller coaster. He was sentenced in Oct 1978 to die in California’s gasoline chamber. In 1982, the point out supreme courtroom threw out his conviction since there was a concern about his competence to guide in his protection. A new trial in 1983 resulted in a further demise sentence.

In 2012, a federal appeals court docket requested Stankewitz be retried or that his sentence be reduced to lifestyle without having the chance of parole, on grounds that his attorney failed to current information about the abuse he’d endured as a youngster. His sentence was reduced seven a long time afterwards.

His legal workforce then appealed the lifestyle-devoid of-parole sentence, and in January 2021 filed what is recognized as a habeas petition. Equally routes could result in a new listening to that Stankewitz hopes will direct to his launch.

In this job interview, conducted in 15-moment telephone calls, and edited and condensed for length and clarity, Stankewitz describes his life at San Quentin State Prison — as a Indigenous particular person and as a prisoner for additional than four decades.

In the 43 a long time that I have used in a smaller cell at San Quentin, I’ve felt grass under my feet only five occasions.

The initial time was just after I had expended seven decades in the isolation device mainly because I refused to lower my hair. I’m Monache and Cherokee. They punished me irrespective of the truth that it’s my custom and religious belief as a Indigenous American to mature my hair very long.

But outside the isolation unit there was a row of grass that they genuinely took treatment of. As the guards led me out of that setting up, I stepped off the concrete path so I could come to feel the grass and dirt less than my feet. The scent and come to feel of grass is nevertheless portion of me.

I’m absolutely sure most free folks never even recognize that they acquire a little something like that for granted, but it’s the little issues that I cherish the most. I frequently feel back to growing up at Massive Sandy — the coyotes and foxes, the geese and deer and wild turkeys. There were being 17 of us residing jointly in three cabins, and it only charge about $80 a thirty day period to feed us. We ate venison, rabbit and turkey, and we had a yard. We usually experienced homemade biscuits, tortillas, frybread and cornbread, and there were being always beans cooking on the back of the potbellied stove. Those ideas, along with the self-willpower I have formulated in below, have served sustain me.

I can say that ailments in the isolation device have modified because 1980, when I was there for the very first time. Back then, there was a gap in the floor for a bathroom. The bogs were being intended to be flushed when each 24 hours, but they hardly ever have been.

We have been supposed to get 1,500 energy a working day. But we got just one meatball in the morning and a single at night with 50 percent a slice of bread. Anytime individuals acted up, the guards would pepper spray them. Often, guards would spray men and women just to see how they’d respond.

Guards would also acquire our mattresses in the morning and give them back at night time — presumably simply because they didn’t want inmates destroying them. But nine instances out of 10 you wouldn’t get your mattress back. It would be another person else’s, and there might be feces on it or urine on it. Following 5 occasions, I informed them, “No, I never want a mattress any more.” I haven’t had just one due to the fact then. I just fold a blanket in 50 percent and slumber on it. I also haven’t had a pillow — I use a roll of rest room paper, and I’m relaxed with that.

In the demise-row cells the place I have used most of my time, I’m nevertheless in isolation — it’s just not as undesirable. My present-day mobile is roughly 4 1/2 ft by 10 toes. Together with my rest room, bed and sink, I’ve obtained a shelf, two lights and a typewriter. I have some CDs and a CD participant with a radio. I also have some photographs and 8 posters of Harley Davidsons. My dad was a biker.

But I’m still locked up all the time, and I never appear out unless I’m handcuffed. I go to the shower, I’m handcuffed. I go to professional medical or the property, I’m handcuffed. A guard is generally seeing. It is like I’m in a zoo.

We do have Indigenous worship companies at San Quentin, but our spiritual adviser doesn’t do it ideal. He has a sacred pipe that he enables all people to touch, and that’s negative medication. You’re not intended to touch the pipe or something sacred like that if you have blood on your hands. If you have killed another person in self-defense or to secure your household or your home, that’s 1 point. But if you get rid of anyone just to destroy, it is called owning blood on your fingers. Which is why I go to other worship solutions, so I can take up other teachings and find out about various religions.

We utilized to have four powwows a yr. Tribes from the Bay Area and all the way up north would offer you buffalo, elk, venison and fish. Now we’re fortunate if we have a person powwow for every 12 months. The reason is that the spiritual adviser would convey to the tribes we were likely to have a powwow on a specified date and soon after the tribes caught fish and deer for it, he’d say, “Well, now we’re likely to have it subsequent thirty day period.” You can’t do that.

When we did have a powwow, we’d get a two-ounce serving of salmon and all the things else would be prison meals. The prison wouldn’t enable people to convey in buffalo meat since they reported bones were being a security hazard. They could just take the meat off the bone and then provide it in, but they will not do that. You’ve obtained these brothers and sisters in the cost-free planet heading out and finding it for us, and we just can’t have it.

In the meantime, my each day program is the exact same as it has been for a long time. I clean up, make positive my cell is clean, then I say my prayers and I meditate for 20 minutes to an hour. Right after that, I switch on the radio, exercising, probably sort a letter and get my breakfast. I perform on my case for about 3 hrs a working day. We have a regulation library, but you have to get on a checklist, so you could possibly go as soon as a thirty day period. Every single 7 days, we can set in requests for a law book we will need. You might be positioned on a ready listing for the book, but it can be far better than almost nothing.

I go to the property with other men and women twice a week for a overall of 6 several hours — until it’s foggy or there’s been an incident and we’re in lockdown. I get to shower for 15 minutes every single other day with a guard standing by. Otherwise, I’m in my mobile.

Considering the fact that my sentence was decreased to lifestyle with no likelihood of parole in 2019, I have the selection of transferring to a cell in the general population. But I’d have to go to a Amount 4 utmost safety unit where there’s a whole lot of violence. Other inmates would want to take a look at me mainly because I have been on dying row.

I also have the selection of shifting to a various prison, but my legal group is in this space. I may well stop up 500 miles absent that would make it more durable for them to appear and see me when they

have to. And so, I await a court date. It could be in a thirty day period, it could be in six months. We do not know. In the meantime, I just try out to be the very best human being I can be so that I’m written content with myself and can go to sleep at evening and say, “Well, I did a fantastic day. I didn’t do any person wrong, I did not lie to any one.”

Men and women have asked me, “How did you make it through 43 decades in prison?” And I say, “By remaining Indigenous.” Staying Indigenous offers me the power to conquer all of this — not just for me, but for all our brothers and sisters. Culture can’t crack our spirit.

Richard Arlin Walker, Mexican/Yaqui, is a journalist and writer residing in Anacortes, Washington.

The California Section of Corrections and Rehabilitation did not respond to requests for remark.

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