PALO ALTO, Calif. (KRON) — An incarcerated man on death row at California State Prison – San Quentin is teaching a class at Stanford University, but a new plan announced by Governor Gavin Newsom could throw his future ability to teach into question.

Bill Clark has been on death row since 1998, after he was convicted for his alleged role in two murders. Since he became incarcerated, he has focused his energy on artistic growth and connection, two things that he says can be challenging to come across on death row.

Since becoming incarcerated, Clark has written dozens of children’s books and stage plays, and he has also created sketches and hundreds of other artworks. Clark says that his creative work has allowed his imagination to grow and help cope with his death row sentence, or what Clark refers to as his “predicament.”

About three years ago, Clark posted a note on the Write a Prisoner website, and he described how lonely he was. Alex Ketley, an artist and Advanced Lecturer at Stanford University, came across Clark’s post and decided to write him a one-page letter. About a week later, Clark responded with a seven-page letter.

“Loneliness is probably one of the worst effects of prison life. You feel neglected. You feel cheated. You feel despair. You lose self confidence, self esteem, self worth. You feel an enormous sense of isolation like nobody cares about you, no one wants to be around you.”

Bill Clark

The pair began an unlikely friendship, and they even started to collaborate artistically. After the pandemic hit, Clark and Ketley worked on a film with several students at Stanford through online collaboration. As soon as quarantine was lifted, Ketley headed to San Quentin to visit Clark in person for the first time. As Clark and Ketley discussed ideas for classes, Ketley suggested that Clark teach alongside him.

This is an image of two men smiling.
Alex Ketley on a visit to see Bill Clark at San Quentin (Photo courtesy of Alex Ketley)

When Ketley brought the idea to administrators at Stanford, they embraced it. “The University has imparted a lot of care towards Bill throughout this process,” Ketley tells KRON4. Some challenges came up, including how the university is able to pay Clark for his work. In the end, Clark says Ketley paid him independently for his teaching role. Ketley later asked Clark to take the lead in class instruction, and Clark embraced the opportunity.

When Clark described the caliber of student he comes across at Stanford, he spoke as in awe. “You have to have done something amazing in society along with the A’s and B’s to get in there,” he told KRON4. Many students in the Stanford class are equally fond of Clark.

A photo of the class taught by Clark and Ketley (Photo courtesy of Alex Ketley, Stanford University)

Jami Rose, a student collaborator in the class told KRON4, “I’m extremely grateful to know Bill Clark and to call him a friend.”

“A major idea of my piece was about Bill’s relentless hope in being set free from his predicament. It’s so relentless it feels wrong to call it hope. Rather, it’s belief and faith…This idea of not just hoping, but believing, is a powerful message I received from our conversations with Bill and what I’ve learned about his character from Alex, his family, and friends. So, I am taking this idea of believing in our own hopes into my life and the lives of those around me. It is a gift that I will forever be grateful to receive from Bill.” — Stanford student Rashid Al-Abri

For Ketley, watching Clark connect with the students was an impressive act. The limitations on Clark as an educator on death row are tricky to navigate.

KRON On is streaming now

“He orchestrated the classes masterfully considering that he’s sitting in a 5 foot by 10 foot cell, and only has his phone which is interrupted every 15 minutes,” Ketley said. “Every single opportunity he had with the students he really stepped up.” 

The class was deemed so successful that Ketley and Clark are planning to teach it again. The pair is also hoping to take the class to other campuses beyond Stanford. Last week, the class gave a final showing of the performances they have developed with Clark over the semester.

(Artwork created by Jami Rose in collaboration with Bill Clark and fellow Danceauction classmates at Stanford University)

Newsom announces changes at San Quentin

Last week, when California Governor Gavin Newsom announced plans to turn San Quentin into a rehabilitation center, it seemed as though the changes could benefit prisoners like Clark. However, it poses a real threat to Clark’s ability to continue teaching.

Newsom’s office announced plans this month to shut down the condemned inmate housing unit at San Quentin — where Clark has lived with fellow inmates for upwards of 20 years — and permanently transfer all existing death row inmates to various prisons across the state. This will impact over 600 people who have been sentenced to death, according to the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation.

After voters approved Proposition 66, the CDCR is now mandated to disperse all death row inmates across the state in what they are calling the Condemned Inmate Transfer Program. These transfers are part of the department’s wider effort to “move toward a behavior-based system where incarcerated people are housed according to their individual case factors, behavior and other needs,” CDCR says.

It’s unclear whether Clark will have the same access to continue teaching if he is transferred to another prison. Ultimately, Clark says he has tremendous gratitude for the experiences he has already had with students and artists at Stanford, and he is committed to his work as an educator and artist.

“I’ll still keep doing what I’m doing, no matter where I’m at…I am entirely grateful. I will never forget this experience, and I will cherish it for the rest of my life,” Clark tells KRON4.