May 14, 2011

Unusual saga: From prison warden to anti-execution activist

Ex-warden of hardscrabble San Quentin to direct abolitionist Death Penalty Focus
Jeanne Woodford is joining Death Penalty Focus, a nonprofit group that works to abolish the death penalty. She brings to the job her experience as the warden of San Quentin State Prison in the San Francisco Bay Area, where she oversaw four executions. (Photo credit: David Butow / Redux)
As the clock ticked past midnight and the death chamber phone refused to ring, San Quentin State Prison Warden Jeanne Woodford would calmly signal the executioners to inject a lethal dose of chemicals into the condemned man's veins.

Reared in a Roman Catholic family, she grew up believing that only God had the right to take a life. But four times in her 30-year career in California corrections, the soft-spoken mother of five carried out executions of notorious killers, remorseful and unrepentant alike.

Woodford resigned as director of the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation four years ago, dismayed over state authorities clinging to policies such as the death penalty that she had concluded are wasteful, discriminatory and fail to make the public safer.

Now, as the state tries to restart the execution machinery after a five-year legal hiatus, Woodford has crossed to the other side of the contentious debate over capital punishment. On Thursday, the abolitionist nonprofit Death Penalty Focus announced Woodford's appointment as executive director, a new role that will see her standing on the other side of the walls of San Quentin should any of the 713 death row inmates meet his or her end at the hands of the state.

"I never was in favor of the death penalty, but my experience at San Quentin allowed me to see it from all points of view. I had a duty to carry out, and I tried to do it with professionalism," Woodford, 56, said in explaining how she had to put her personal abhorrence of execution aside to do her job. "The death penalty serves no one. It doesn't serve the victims. It doesn't serve prevention. It's truly all about retribution."

Woodford says she sees an opportunity to get rid of the death penalty in the current quest for budgetary restraint. If the public can be educated about the true costs of capital punishment - at least $200 million a year, she says - as well as its potential for irreversible error, support for the ultimate penalty would wither, Woodford predicts. It is that prospect that has lured her from a brief retirement to the post with Death Penalty Focus from which she will lobby against the policy she once imposed.
Reform proposals ignored
After 26 years at San Quentin, Woodford was tapped by Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger to serve as corrections director in 2004, a job she initially hoped would allow her to reform the system from inside. She wanted to close the revolving door of parole violators flooding the prisons for three-month terms, enough to compound overcrowding and soak up medical care but too short to get into rehabilitative programs.

"It was an incredibly expensive bus ride to nowhere," she said of the vicious circle of petty offenses sending parolees back inside to reconnect with hardened criminals.

Her proposals for locating inmates in prisons closest to where their families lived went unheeded. Direly needed sentencing reform never happened, although, she says, the Legislature and governor are now drafting programs to cut the 70% recidivism rate, finally motivated by the need to trim the corrections budget.

"There are a lot of hard-working people in the corrections system who take the blame for so much that is out of their control," Woodford says of the frustration that led to her resignation. "They don't make the sentencing laws, but they are expected to carry them out."
The Los Angeles Times profile, by reporter Carol Williams, continues HERE.

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