"One is absolutely sickened, not by the crimes that the wicked have committed, but by the punishments that the good have inflicted." - Oscar Wilde

Tuesday, April 21, 2015

Prison guards and the death penalty

Screenshot from "Monster's Ball" (2001) by Marc Forster
with Billy Bob Thornton, Halle Berry and Heath Ledger.
Like murder, execution inflicts emotional and psychological damage on those linked to it.

How are prison guards affected by overseeing prisoners on death row or even participating in executions? What effects does it have in the short and the longer term?

This short paper draws on research and interviews with prison guards to outline the psychological impact that guards who have worked with prisoners for many years on death row can experience when a prisoner is put to death.

This paper is part of a series looking at the wider impact of the death penalty. See also our paper: Fighting for clients’ lives: the impact of the death penalty on defence lawyers.


When we think about the people affected by the death penalty, we may not think about guards on death rows. But these officials, whether they oversee prisoners awaiting execution or participate in the execution itself, can be deeply affected by their role in helping to put a person to death. 

Guards on death row

Persons sentenced to death are usually considered among the most dangerous prisoners and are placed in the highest security conditions. Prison guards are frequently suspicious of death row prisoners, are particularly vigilant around them,1 and experience death row as a dangerous place. 

Harsh prison conditions can make things worse not only for prisoners but also for guards. The mental health of death row prisoners frequently deteriorates and they may suffer from ‘death row phenomenon’, the ‘condition of mental and emotional distress brought on by prolonged incarceration in the harsh conditions of death row, combined with the knowledge of forthcoming execution’,2 leading guards to fear for their own safety. Solitary confinement in particular degrades prisoners’ mental health on death rows; it is common practice in countries including Japan, Jordan, South Korea, USA and elsewhere.3 In Japan, in the latter stages before execution, all communication between prisoners or between guards and prisoners is forbidden.

In 2014, the Texas prison guards union appealed for better death row prisoner conditions, because the guards faced daily danger from prisoners made mentally ill by solitary confinement and who had ‘nothing to lose’.5 In this environment, routine safety practices were imposed that dehumanised prisoners and guards alike, such as every exit of a cell requiring a strip search. Guards protested that their own dignity was undermined by the obligation to look at ‘one naked inmate after another’6 all day. 

Interactions with prisoners

Despite the stark conditions, death rows are still places where human connections form. In all but the most extreme solitary settings, guards engage with prisoners regularly, bringing them food and accompanying them when they leave their cells (for example to exercise, receive visits or attend court hearings). Guards may spend more time with death row prisoners than with friends or family outside and can develop empathy towards the prisoners.7 Modern prison management actually encourages the development by staff of positive relationships with prisoners, in combination with an understanding of prisoners’ personal situations and any risk posed by individual prisoners.8

Managing visits from family members can be emotionally tough for guards, especially when prisoners are banned from touching their visitors and visits take place through glass partitions or nets.9 The ‘most difficult thing’ as an attending guard is ‘to see on the other side of the glass … the families. Children. Never be able to touch. Never be able to hug.’10 Final visits by families prior to execution can be even harder, as can the time when guards see the prisoner for the last time. When prisoners leave for execution, guards may become tense and uneasy;11 some have started crying after doing mundane tasks like taking a prisoner’s fingerprints.12 A Tanzanian prison officer described how he would ‘spend sleepless nights for a week before regaining my composure’13 following an execution. One US guard reported at least a dozen occasions in which a prisoner about to go to the execution chamber would stick his hand out of the slot in the door to shake his hand, and say something like: ‘Good to know you … Thanks for being a good officer’.14

1. Information from India, Japan and USA, 2014 and 2015.
2. Penal Reform International, Death Penalty Information Pack, London, 2014, p. 35.
3. Death Penalty Worldwide database, accessed 18 February 2015 at http://www.deathpenaltyworldwide.org/country-search-post.cfm?89-0chk=on&90- 0chk=on&99-0chk=on.
4. Amnesty International, Hanging by a Thread: Mental Health and the Death Penalty in Japan, London, 2009, p. 31.
5. Joanna Walters, ‘Prison Guards Working On Texas’ Death Row Call For Softer Conditions For Condemned Inmates’, The Telegraph website, 18 February 2014, accessed 25 January 2015 at http://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/worldnews/northamerica/10647442/Prison-guards-working-onTexas-Death-Row-call-for-softer-conditions-for-condemned-inmates.html.
6. Alex Hannaford, ‘Inmates Aren’t the Only Victims of the Prison-Industrial Complex’, The Nation, 16 September 2014, accessed 28 November 2014 at http://www.thenation.com/article/181607/inmates-arent-only-victims-prison-industrial-complex (Inmates aren’t the only victims); Texas After Violence Project, Interview with Edgar Fincher, 17 April 2011, forthcoming at http://av.lib.utexas.edu/index.php?title=Category:Texas_After_Violence_Project (Interview with Edgar Fincher).
7. Interview with Edgar Fincher.
8. ‘Dynamic security’ is defined as ‘the development by staff of positive relationships with prisoners … in combination with an understanding of their personal situation and any risk posed by individual prisoners’ (Council of Europe, Recommendation Rec(2003)23 on the management by prison administrations of life sentence and other long-term prisoners, Adopted by the Committee of Ministers on 9 October 2003, para. 18(a)).

9. Oliver Robertson and Rachel Brett, Lightening the Load of the Parental Death Penalty on Children, Quaker United Nations Office, Geneva, June 2013, p. 20. 
10. Interview with Edgar Fincher. 
11. Information from India, 2015. 
12. Inmates aren’t the only victims. 
13. Kiangiosekazi Wa-Nyoka, ‘Death penalty with its perceived deterrent effect’, Daily News website, 15 November 2014, accessed 27 November 2014 at http://dailynews.co.tz/index.php/columnists/columnists/38290-death-penalty-with-its-perceived-deterrent-effect (Perceived deterrent effect). 
14. Interview with Edgar Fincher

Source: Prison Reform International, April 2015. Penal Reform International (PRI) is an independent non-governmental organisation that develops and promotes fair, effective and proportionate responses to criminal justice problems worldwide.

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