John A. Bertsch, T-03474
San Quentin State Prison
San Quentin, CA  94974

October 17, 2002

    My name is John A. Bertsch, C.D.C. #T-03474, currently incarcerated here in East Block on California’s Death Row at San Quentin State Prison.

    I am white, 44-years-old, from Sacramento, California, and have been disowned and forsaken by all family and friends after my conviction and sentence of death during my capital trial in the year of 2000 in the Superior Court of Sacramento County.

    I had spent 10 years of my life in the Sacramento County main jail downtown, trying to get to my trial.  Law enforcement and the District Attorney’s Office prosecuting my case had played games over the years with the evidence.

    My case was one of the first DNA cases in the country, back in 1989, that the F.B.I. worked upon.  The F.B.I. had trouble with their DNA lab and program in 1993, and the evidence was not reliable for court.

    The above action by the F.B.I. was documented in the 1998 book by author John F. Kelly called, “Tainting Evidence:  Inside the Scandals At the F.B.I. Crime Lab” (p. 236, n. 6).

    During my stay in the county jail awaiting my trial, I became a jailhouse lawyer.  I would help other inmates with their cases and other legal matters.  I came to know some of the country’s most infamous criminals, like the “Unabomber”; Theodore J. Kaczynski; Hell’s Angel Otis “Ruck” Garrett, president of the Nomad Chapter in Northern California; and other notorious characters.  We were housed together on “8 West,” the high max unit of the jail.

    On December 29, 2000, I was transported from the Sacramento County main jail to San Quentin State Prison by the Sacramento County Sheriff’s Department.  The trip from Sacramento to San Quentin lasted about two hours.  I was put into a white transportation van in the basement of the jail with belly waist chains, hands cuffed to my side, and leg irons on my feet.

    I was the only inmate on the van, for this was a special, one-way trip to Death Row.  There were two sheriff deputies on this detail, with a chase car on our tail all the way to the prison.

    As we left Sacramento on Highway 80 West going over the Sacramento River, I reminisced of my past life as a free man in the outside world.

    I was born on November 4, 1957, as a bastard in the basement of my grandmother’s home in Portland, Oregon; and lived most of my life like an S.O.B.

    When I was only a few months old, my mother married and we moved to Sacramento, California.  I had one half-brother and three half-sisters that I grew up with in Rancho Cordova, ten miles east of Sacramento.

    I grew up in a dysfunctional family.  Both of my parents, my mother and step dad, were both alcoholics, and my mother suffered from the mental illness schizophrenia and was committed to a mental hospital two times in the early 1970s.

    In 1975 my step dad lost the home that we grew up in due to his drinking.  Also in that year, my mom divorced my step dad and the family separated.  To date, both of my parents are dead, and I have no contact with other family members.

    When I was 14-years-old, I started to work to help support the family.  I worked on a ranch fulltime in the summer and part time the rest of the time.  The farm grew sod; grass to landscapers; hay, of which we harvested into the barn; and almonds, of which I had to irrigate the orchards.  It was hard for a kid, but I made about $200 cash per week, which was good for a kid.

    At the age of 14-years-old, I started to drink beer and wine and smoke weed with my friends.

    I was a very good athlete in high school.  I lettered in football, baseball and track.  I was an outstanding football player for Cordova High in Rancho Cordova in 1974-75.  Cordova won the State football title championship in 1975 and was ranked #3 in the nation.

    After graduating from Cordova in 1975, I went on to play football at a local junior college.

    In January of 1976, I joined the U.S. Army for 4 years, and in April of 1979, I was discharged from the service at Fort Campbell, Kentucky, the 101st Airborne Division.

    After being discharged from the Army, I went back to Sacrament to live and work.  I went to work as a landscaper, installing sprinkler systems at shopping malls, along the highways, and at large custom homes.

    I was a landscape foreman for several different landscape companies in Sacramento, from 1980-85, and would be in charge of crews of up to 20-50 men at one time.

    Landscaping large custom homes was the most fun because you could be very creative in your work.  We installed waterfalls, retaining walls, redwood decks, hot tubs, and other requested projects.

    I made good money landscaping, making from $7-$15 an hour, and with that money, I would party all the time and live like the devil.  Drinking and using drugs was a big part of my life and my final downfall in life.

    In the early 1980s, I became a hardened alcoholic and drug addict, shooting up meth-speed and heroin.  My life was a living hell, and the devil himself was hot on my trail.

    In the fall of 1985, I got into trouble with the law in Sacramento and went on the run underground.

    For the last 17 years of my life, I have been incarcerated in jails or prisons across the country, of which has been a living hell that no person should have to endure.

    As the van pulled up to the back gate of San Quentin Prison, I said goodbye for the last time to the free world as the van drove into the belly of the beast.

    The cops delivered me to receiving to be processed into the California Department of Corrections (C.D.C.) prison system.  This was my first time in a California prison, even though I spent three years in a Georgia prison from 1987-90 for a manslaughter conviction in Atlanta in 1987.

    During the intake process, the Correctional Officers (C.O.’s) will strip search you, issue C.D.C. sate prison clothing to you, fingerprint you, take your photo, fill out paperwork, and issue you your C.D.C. identification number to you.  All you become at this time is just a number to the state of California.

    The above process took about four hours, and it was about 2 p.m. in the afternoon when the goon squad came to take me to my new home, Death Row, in the Adjustment Center (A.C. Unit), “The Hole” and disciplinary unit for The Row.

    The total population of San Quentin Prison is over 5,600, with over 600 condemned inmates on The Row.  Death Row is located in three different locations throughout the prison:  1)  the A.C. Unit with a population of about 100 inmates; 2)  East Block Unit with about 400 men on The Row; and 3)  North Block A.D. SEG Unit with about 70 condemned men, which was the original Death Row and where the execution chamber is still located to this day.

    All new, condemned inmates upon arrival to Death Row go to the A.C. Unit for one month to be evaluated and go through the classification process.

    San Quentin Prison is over 150-years-old, predating the Civil War.  The prison is an antiquated medieval dungeon of a hellhole, not fit for man or beast.  The prison is located in the northwest bay by the water, right by the Richmond/San Rafael Bridge on Highway 580.

    The A.C. Unit is “The Hole” for the Death Row inmates of San Quentin.  Life is a living hell and war zone inside of the A.C. Unit.  Inmates that attack and assault the guards and other inmates and staff and that are gang members, shot callers and “5150” “J Cats” that have lost their minds and have gone crazy, will live inside of the A.C. Unit until they die.

    The A.C. Unit is three tiers high with about 100 single cells.  The cells are small, about 6’x10’ in size.  There are bars on the front of the cells with wire mesh screens that cap the bars.  There are windows in the A.C. Unit, but you can’t see outside because the windows are painted over with black paint.

    We get three meals on The Row per day, two hot and one bag lunch.  The food is bad here, but it is enough to keep you alive.  The C.O.’s serve you your food inside of your cell, and you eat inside of your cell.

    You get to shower three times per week and go outside to the yard two times per week.  The yards for the A.C. Unit are small “dog runs” inside of a wire cage 8’x12’.  One inmate per cage on the yard.  Every time that you move outside of your cell, you are handcuffed behind your back through the food part.

    Inside of the A.C. Unit you are escorted everywhere by three officers dressed in full riot gear, with vests, helmets, baton, shields, a c.o. pepper spray at the ready.  One wrong move, and the guards will club you with the baton and spray c.o. pepper spray into your face.  Some inmates have died in the A.C. Unit during cell extractions when the guards go into an inmate’s cell to bring him out by force, beating and spraying pepper spray into the cell.  The inmate can’t breathe and dies.  This pepper spray affects all inmates on the tier.

    For more on the use of pepper spray in the A.C. Unit and the death of Sammie Marshall on Father’s Day, June 15, 1997, see West Magazine, May 3, 1998, San Jose Mercury News, “A Death Behind Bars” (cover page), “The Extraction of a Management Case” (pp. 9-15), by reporter Mike Weiss, e-mail:

    The weapon of choice by inmates in the A.C. Unit is “gassing,” the throwing of human waste, urine and excrement upon the guards.  This will get you a fast beating and cell extraction, posthaste, pain or death.  Then it is off to the “strip cell” with you, where you only get your underwear and one blanket.  This is the end of the line on Death Row; this is the cell of last resort.  If the “strip cell” does not break you, the C.O. guards will find a way to drive you mad and crazy or find a way to kill you.

    Over the last ten years here on Death Row, more inmates have died by the hands of prison guards than by execution by the state.

    The movie “The Green Mile” depicts life on Death Row, which is a cakewalk compared to life inside of the A.C. Unit.

    If you stay out of trouble in the A.C. Unit, you are allowed to have a 19” color T.V. set and Walkman radio with headphones to help you pass the time.  This is part of C.D.C.’s “carrot and stick project” to keep inmates in line and out of trouble.  For the larger part of inmates on The Row, this project works.

    After my one-month stay in the A.C. Unit, I was classified as “Grade A” and moved to East Block.  East Block is as long and wide as a football field.  It is 5 tiers high with 500 single cells.

    There are about 400 condemned inmates inside of East Block.  The place is full of antisocial sociopathic killers.

    The other inmates inside of East Black are from the main line, doing their “Hole” time as AD SEG inmates for disciplinarian violations of C.D.C. rules under Title 15.  The majority of these inmates are shot callers and hardcore gang members for the Aryan Brotherhood, Nazi Low Riders, Crips, Bloods, Mexican Mafia, Northern Mexicans, Southern Mexicans, and many other gangs.  The other inmates are “5150” “J Cats,” mad and crazy people, and other disciplinarian problems that the C.O.’s can’t handle in the other main line units.  Most of the AD SEG inmates are very loud and scream night and day.

    All of the loud noise inside of East Block is a constant form of mental torment for Death Row inmates.  East Block is a boiling cauldron of racial hatred and gang warfare.  This is a living hell that Dante would have liked to write about in his day.

    The cells in East Block are very small (4½’x10’).  You can only take five steps while walking inside of your cell, then you must turn around.  I can stand up inside of my cell, stick both arms out and touch the side of both walls.  I have front bars on my cell like the A.C. Unit, but I have a dirty window that I can look outside and see the sky.

    Here in East Block only one guard will escort you to and from the shower or yard, unlike the A.C. Unit.  This is still a lockdown high maximum security unit, and you are always under the gun in East Block, inside or outside of the unit.  The gunners walk the catwalks on the outside wall of East Block and carry rifles, M-14s, along with a .45 caliber sidearm.  There are no warning shots fired inside or outside of East Black.  The gunner can shoot to kill at any time.  Even a fistfight with no weapon can get you shot and killed.

    You can go to the shower three times per week and outside to the yard 4-5 times per week inside of East Block.

    There are six yards in East Block for the condemned inmates, with 50-70 men on the yards at one time.  The yards are very small (40’x80’), concrete, with 20 foot high walls with a lot of razor wire and gun towers to keep you inside the “Big House of Pain by the Bay.”

    The gunners on the yard also have the use of non-lethal weapons to stop fights, such as the block gun and a large water cannon that shoots pepper spray.

    To go to the yard, you must undergo a strip search; walk out to the yard in your shoes and underwear with your hands cuffed behind your back.  Your other clothing that you will wear out on the yard is contained in your yard bag that you carry with you.  Before you go outside to the yard, the guards pat you down, wand you for weapons, and put your yard bag through the X-ray machine.  You go through the same process after yard coming back into the unit, but for the strip search.

    The inmates on Death Row in East Block may also go to the law library and religious services one time per month.  You can also have full contact visits from family and attorneys.

    All condemned inmates on Death Row live in single cells.  Condemned prisoners spend a good amount of in-cell time to themselves.  Isolation and sensory deprivation is the name of the game on The Row.  People fight to retain their sanity everyday on Death Row, but some lose the game and go mad and crazy and become a “J Cat,” and off to the A.C. Unit they go.  After long periods of isolation, some people become psychotic and start to hear voices and see things, as in schizophrenia.

    The medical staff on The Row try to control the “J Cats” with psychotropic drugs, but they are losing the war with broken minds.  There are too many toys on The Row to fix.

    I would estimate that 15-20% of inmates on Death Row suffer from some form of mental illness.  Moreover, I would also state that 80-90% of inmates on The Row suffered from alcoholism and drug addiction on the street, and of which had a collateral effect upon the condemned at the time of their crime that they were convicted of at their capital murder trial that landed them on Death Row.

    It is axiomatic that the breakdown of the family unit, dysfunctional families, and divorce are the major contributory factors that lead to juvenile delinquency and the future criminals that will continue to fill our country’s jails and prisons.

    With over 2 million people incarcerated or on parole currently in our land, it is time for America to get its “moral compass” back and to reclaim our youth before they go down that wrong and dark path to death and self-destruction.  The Death Rows of our country are a testament to the state of our neglect to the young people of our land.

    America is currently in a war against terrorism after the September 11, 2001, attacks upon New York City in which over 3,000 people were killed.  Many of our young people will be joining the military to help fight this war.  We, as a nation, need to make certain that our young people have their “moral compass” as a good foundation to understand what America is all about and what they are fighting for.

    If I would have grown up in a functional family that was grounded in love for all members of the unit, I do not think that I would have fallen into the world of alcoholism and drug addiction to kill the pain of a broken heart.

    By the age of 18-years-old, I was a broken toy with no moral compass, in the U.S. Army with the same mindset as I had:  party, get drunk, get into a fight, and get the girl for a one-night stand.

    This was an every weekend event at Fort Campbell, Kentucky, home of the Screaming Eagles, the 101st Airborne Division.  I was in Charley Company, 1/502nd Battalion.  We were grunts in the infantry and flew around in helicopters and repelled out of the choppers via ropes to the ground, then we would hump 10-20 miles to our area of operations to follow our battle orders for the war games.

    We were out in the field for weeks at a time conducting war games, but this did not stop our party animal spirit, for we brought plenty of booze, fifths of 151 proof rum, meth-speed, black beauties, and weed to keep us all happy and flying high as a kite.

    When we were off duty on the weekends, we would go to Nashville, Tennessee, 50 miles south of the base, to visit the nightclubs and strip clubs to hook up with women for the night.  All the strippers and working girls were always glad to see young, horny soldiers from the base with a pocket full of money.

    There was a group of seven men from Charley Company and we called ourselves:  “The Boys.”  “The Boys” were from California, Texas, and New York City.  When we traveled to Nashville to party for the weekend, we would drive around downtown and locate a good hotel and get three rooms side by side to set up shop.  We would then call a taxi and go down to the main strip where all the action was at.  The taxi drivers in downtown Nashville were a great source of information about underground activities ongoing in town, and we tipped them well.

    Nashville was also a place to make drug and weapons deals with a group of truckers that we called the “Hillbilly Mob.”  The Hillbillies had the drugs, weed, and meth-speed; and we, “The Boys,” had the weapons.  Some weapons had come up missing from Fort Campbell, and the Army’s “Central Intelligence Division” (C.I.D.) law enforcement agency was conducting an investigation of our little gang.

    I do not know the outcome of the above stated investigation by the C.I.D. because I was discharged early from the Army for fighting and received a “Chapter 10”--a bad conduct discharge--in April of 1979 and moved and headed back to Sacramento to live and work.

    Now I sit in my small cell here on Death Row thinking of all the good times in my life, all the happy events over the years, and all the people that were my friends and lovers at one time in the past, for this is the only thing that I can hold onto to keep sane in an insane place as Death Row.

    Now all family and friends have disowned me and forsaken me.  This is the end of the line.  This is the “House of Pain.”  To stay sane, I read and write a lot and watch T.V.  I also gain strength from my faith in God and Jesus Christ.

    If any young people are reading this article about life on Death Row, one word [of advice] that I would give you is:  please play the game of life right, stay off the booze and drugs, stay in school, listen to your parents, and do not live a life of crime and come here to Death Row, for this is the big “House of Pain by the Bay,” and you will not like life here on The Row.

    If anyone would like to write and correspond with me by mail, please feel free to write to me at the following address:


© Copyright 2003 John A. Bertsch

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