Douglas Ray Stankewitz is California’s longest-serving death-row prisoner. The 63-year-old Monache and Cherokee Indian from the Massive Sandy Rancheria has spent 43 years in San Quentin State Jail for a crime he says he didn’t commit: the Feb. 8, 1978 carjacking and homicide of 21-year-old Theresa Graybeal in Fresno, California. (Stankewitz says that whereas he was within the group of younger individuals who initially drove Graybeal’s automobile, he did not carjack or kill her.)
Since his conviction at age 20, Stankewitz’s life has been a authorized curler coaster. He was sentenced in October 1978 to die in California’s fuel chamber. In 1982, the state supreme court docket threw out his conviction as a result of there was a query about his competence to help in his protection. A brand new trial in 1983 resulted in one other demise sentence.
In 2012, a federal appeals court docket ordered Stankewitz be retried or that his sentence be decreased to life with out the potential for parole, on grounds that his lawyer did not current data about the abuse he’d endured as a baby. His sentence was decreased seven years later.
His authorized workforce then appealed the life-without-parole sentence, and in January 2021 filed what is called a habeas petition. Each routes may end in a brand new listening to that Stankewitz hopes will result in his launch.
On this interview, carried out in 15-minute telephone calls, and edited and condensed for size and readability, Stankewitz describes his life at San Quentin State Jail — as a Native particular person and as a prisoner for greater than 4 many years.
Within the 43 years that I’ve spent in a small cell at San Quentin, I’ve felt grass beneath my toes solely 5 occasions.
The primary time was after I had spent seven years within the isolation unit as a result of I refused to chop my hair. I’m Monache and Cherokee. They punished me even supposing it’s my custom and non secular perception as a Native American to develop my hair lengthy.
However exterior the isolation unit there was a row of grass that they actually took care of. Because the guards led me out of that constructing, I stepped off the concrete path so I may really feel the grass and grime beneath my toes. The odor and really feel of grass remains to be a part of me.
I am certain most free folks don’t even understand that they take one thing like that as a right, nevertheless it’s the little issues that I cherish essentially the most. I usually assume again to rising up at Massive Sandy — the coyotes and foxes, the geese and deer and wild turkeys. There have been 17 of us residing collectively in three cabins, and it solely value about $80 a month to feed us. We ate venison, rabbit and turkey, and we had a backyard. We all the time had do-it-yourself biscuits, tortillas, frybread and cornbread, and there have been all the time beans cooking on the again of the potbellied range. These ideas, together with the self-discipline I’ve developed in right here, have helped maintain me.
I can say that situations within the isolation unit have modified since 1980, after I was there for the primary time. Again then, there was a gap within the ground for a bathroom. The bogs had been presupposed to be flushed as soon as each 24 hours, however they not often had been.
We had been presupposed to get 1,500 energy a day. However we acquired one meatball within the morning and one at evening with half a slice of bread. Anytime folks acted up, the guards would pepper spray them. Typically, guards would spray folks simply to see how they’d react.
Guards would additionally take our mattresses within the morning and provides them again at evening — presumably as a result of they didn’t need inmates destroying them. However 9 occasions out of 10 you wouldn’t get your mattress again. It will be another person’s, and there is likely to be feces on it or urine on it. After 5 occasions, I instructed them, “No, I don’t desire a mattress anymore.” I haven’t had one since then. I simply fold a blanket in half and sleep on it. I additionally haven’t had a pillow — I exploit a roll of bathroom paper, and I’m snug with that.
Within the death-row cells the place I’ve spent most of my time, I’m nonetheless in isolation — it’s simply not as unhealthy. My present cell is roughly 4 1/2 toes by 10 toes. Together with my bathroom, mattress and sink, I’ve acquired a shelf, two lights and a typewriter. I’ve some CDs and a CD participant with a radio. I even have some photographs and eight posters of Harley Davidsons. My dad was a biker.
However I’m nonetheless locked up on a regular basis, and I don’t come out except I’m handcuffed. I am going to the bathe, I’m handcuffed. I am going to medical or the yard, I’m handcuffed. A guard is all the time watching. It’s like I’m in a zoo.
We do have Native worship providers at San Quentin, however our spiritual adviser doesn’t do it proper. He has a sacred pipe that he permits all people to the touch, and that’s unhealthy medication. You’re not supposed to the touch the pipe or something sacred like that when you’ve got blood in your arms. In the event you’ve killed somebody in self-defense or to guard your loved ones or your property, that’s one factor. However should you kill someone simply to kill, it’s referred to as having blood in your arms. That’s why I am going to different worship providers, so I can take up different teachings and find out about completely different religions.
We used to have 4 powwows a yr. Tribes from the Bay Space and all the way in which up north would provide buffalo, elk, venison and fish. Now we’re fortunate if we now have one powwow per yr. The reason being that the spiritual adviser would inform the tribes we had been going to have a powwow on a sure date and after the tribes caught fish and deer for it, he’d say, “Effectively, now we’re going to have it subsequent month.” You possibly can’t do this.
Once we did have a powwow, we’d get a two-ounce serving of salmon and every part else can be jail meals. The jail wouldn’t permit folks to usher in buffalo meat as a result of they mentioned bones had been a safety threat. They may simply take the meat off the bone after which carry it in, however they received’t do this. You’ve acquired these brothers and sisters within the free world going out and getting it for us, and we are able to’t have it.
In the meantime, my each day routine is similar because it has been for many years. I wash up, make certain my cell is clear, then I say my prayers and I meditate for 20 minutes to an hour. After that, I activate the radio, train, perhaps kind a letter and get my breakfast. I work on my case for about three hours a day. Now we have a regulation library, however you must get on a listing, so that you would possibly go as soon as a month. Each week, we are able to put in requests for a regulation ebook we’d like. You could be positioned on a ready record for the ebook, nevertheless it’s higher than nothing.
I am going to the yard with different folks twice per week for a complete of six hours — except it’s foggy or there’s been an incident and we’re in lockdown. I get to bathe for quarter-hour each different day with a guard standing by. In any other case, I’m in my cell.
Since my sentence was decreased to life with out risk of parole in 2019, I’ve the choice of transferring to a cell within the common inhabitants. However I’d need to go to a Stage 4 most safety unit the place there’s plenty of violence. Different inmates would wish to check me as a result of I’ve been on demise row.
I even have the choice of transferring to a special jail, however my authorized workforce is on this space. I would find yourself 500 miles away; that might make it tougher for them to come back and see me after they
need to. And so, I await a court docket date. It might be in a month, it might be in six months. We don’t know. In the meantime, I simply attempt to be one of the best particular person I might be in order that I’m content material with myself and may fall asleep at evening and say, “Effectively, I did an excellent day. I didn’t do anyone mistaken, I didn’t deceive anyone.”
Folks have requested me, “How did you make it via 43 years in jail?” And I say, “By being Native.” Being Native offers me the energy to beat all of this — not only for me, however for all our brothers and sisters. Society can not break our spirit.
Richard Arlin Walker, Mexican/Yaqui, is a journalist and writer residing in Anacortes, Washington.
The California Division of Corrections and Rehabilitation didn’t reply to requests for remark.