By Alex Tresniowski
March 28, 2005 12:00 PM

In the San Mateo County jail, where Scott Peterson has spent the last 14 months, the easy charm that served him so well before things went bad has come in handy. “Scott’s a model prisoner,” says San Francisco Bay Area criminal defense attorney Paula Canny, who gets updates about him from her clients in San Mateo. “He’s not a discipline problem. He’s actually a favorite of the guards’. They like him. He doesn’t get a radio or TV but they haven’t taken away his laptop.”

All that is about to change. After a March 16 hearing at which a superior court judge is expected to uphold his conviction for killing his wife, Laci, and their unborn son Conner in 2002, Peterson, 32, will move into his new home—death row at San Quentin. Accustomed to the relative cushiness of a county lockup, Peterson will likely be unprepared for what awaits him in the infamous San Francisco maximum-security prison, and particularly in the desolate corridors it reserves for the doomed and the damned. “You need survival instincts to make it on death row,” says Robert Jensen, a corrections counselor at San Quentin from 1992 to 1998. “My gut reaction is he might not make it.”

It is a life more miserable than most can comprehend, more devoid of humanity than most can fathom. The 617 prisoners on San Quentin’s death row “face a living hell,” says Sister Helen Prejean, the author of Dead Man Walking and a prisoners’ rights advocate who has counseled death row inmates there. “There is sensory deprivation of a very high degree. On death row you are regarded as disposable human waste.” Living there “is like waiting for the Angel of Death to pass over your door,” says Lee Farmer, who spent years on death row before his murder conviction was overturned in 1992. “Some men reach peace with themselves; others wallow in self-pity and denial.”

Peterson will join a gallery of notorious killers facing execution, including Richard Ramirez (the Night Stalker) and the Yosemite slayer Cary Stayner (see box). If history is a guide, his tenancy will be a long one: The average time spent on death row between an inmate’s appeal and his release or execution is “20 years, give or take 2, at least here in California,” says James Anderson, a former Alameda County prosecutor who sent 10 convicts to death row. He predicts Peterson will have a hard time of it. “He’s in a strange environment, where frankly no one gives a damn about him,” he says. “They think he’s the scum of the earth, and that’s what’s really going to hit him.”

Earlier this month officials at the 432-acre, 5,800-inmate prison gave PEOPLE a chilling tour of its grounds. Built in 1852, it is a dark, dank and overcrowded place. Peterson’s first stop will be the 102-cell Adjustment Center, where he could spend his first 45 days. The center is used to acclimate death row prisoners and other violent inmates, some of whom are kept there permanently for security reasons. “The hardened killers,” says Vernell Crittendon, the prison spokesman who conducts the tour. “Members of the Aryan Brotherhood, the Mexican Mafia, the Black Guerilla Family.” Peterson gets 10 days to choose his method of execution—death by gas or lethal injection. “If he doesn’t, the state chooses for him,” says Crittendon. “Then it’s lethal injection.” Peterson will spend all but four hours of every other day (set aside for exercise in a private outdoor cage) inside his 10-ft.-by-6-ft. cell. “It is a life of inactivity,” says Crittendon. “It’s just the worst thing you can imagine. It’s easy to die, but it’s hard to live every day and not be active.”

The Adjustment Center is considered a Grade B cellblock, which means no TVs, radios or phone privileges. Peterson’s cell will be bare except for a metal toilet and a bunk. He will be allowed to read law books and some magazines and can also request to speak with a corrections counselor once a day. But apart from that, he won’t have much interaction. “Guards won’t talk to him like they did at the county jail, where he spent most of his time as an innocent man,” says Jensen. “Inmates will know he’s there and call him wife killer and baby killer.”

After 45 days Peterson will likely join 450 inmates in East Block Condemned Row Two. As many as seven days a week, prison guards—who sometimes wear plexiglass spit shields—will escort a shackled Peterson to a concrete courtyard where he can stretch his legs in a communal exercise area along with up to 85 other inmates. “He’s going to stand out,” says Farmer. “They’ll be curious about him. It’s a sizing-up process.” Peterson, says Anderson, “will have to watch his back. Prisoners who have a good chance at being executed may think, ‘Well, hell, I might as well go down in a blaze of glory by taking out a guy who is notorious.’ ” As for protection from other prisoners, “the only gang he could be in is the Aryan Brotherhood,” believes Anderson, “and even those guys wouldn’t like somebody who did in his pregnant wife and unborn child.”

Besides the fear and loneliness, there are other small miseries. “Some of the guards are decent human beings, but others—if they have a sadistic streak—will get their jollies from him,” contends Sister Prejean. “Your time comes to have your shower and the guard seems to forget you. Or someone sends you a package and they forget to give it to you.” Still, in the East Block, Peterson will have access to a TV (13 channels only) and a radio and can subscribe to most magazines (though no provocative pictures are allowed on cell walls). He will be allowed as many as three visitors for two hours at a time on Fridays, Saturdays and Sundays. And the food, say those familiar with it, isn’t terrible—potatoes, eggs and biscuits for breakfast, a sack lunch (usually a peanut butter sandwich) and beef or chicken for dinner, all taken in his cell.

Certainly it will help, at least in the beginning, that Peterson will enter death row firmly believing that he will one day leave. “He’s physically fit, and he has an amazingly positive attitude,” says his sister-in-law Janey Peterson. “He knows he’s innocent and believes whoever killed Laci will someday be caught. We’re all trusting in God that the truth will come out.” Even so, Peterson will eventually have to confront the terrible reality of his situation. With a victory in his appeal unlikely, he must find a way to handle the burden of endless weeks and months of sameness and solitude. “On death row you have the phenomenon of things not changing for years and years,” says Sister Prejean. “You are there until you are executed or commit suicide. The climate takes over no matter what.”

At San Quentin a steady rain falls on the dismal courtyard where several inmates shuffle around on the wet asphalt. Off in the distance, across the flat gray water of the San Francisco Bay, the spot where the body of Laci Peterson was dumped is visible from parts of the prison grounds, though most inmates—including Peterson—will never get to enjoy the view. One inmate, in an orange jumpsuit, wanders by in the courtyard when he hears the subject is San Quentin’s newest celebrity inmate. “Scott Peterson, let me tell you a little bit about this place,” he whispers, staring down at the puddles on the ground. “You ain’t gonna like it here. You ain’t gonna like it.”

Alex Tresniowski. Johnny Dodd in San Quentin and Ron Arias, Vickie Bane, Lorenzo Benet, Champ Clark, Maureen Harrington, Ken Lee and Vicki Sheff-Cahan in Los Angeles