|"Housed alone for years in tiny concrete cells" - Death row cell, Polunsky Unit, TX|
For many death row inmates, the long process leading to capital punishment is itself cruel—but not unusual.
In 1979, Arthur Lee Giles, then 19 years old, was sentenced to death in Blount County, Alabama. Nearly 40 years later, he is still waiting to be executed. His glacial march to execution exposes a conundrum at the heart of America’s death penalty. Condemned prisoners often spend decades on death row before being executed—if the execution ever happens at all—a fact that undermines any retributive value capital punishment might provide.
Approximately 40 percent of the 2,739 people currently on death row have spent at least 20 years awaiting execution, and 1 in 3 of these prisoners are older than 50. (This is according to data collected by the Fair Punishment Project and sourced from the NAACP’s Legal Defense Fund, the Federal Bureau of Prisons, and state corrections departments.)
According to a Los Angeles Times investigation, roughly two dozen men on California’s death row require walkers and wheelchairs, and one is living out his days in bed wearing diapers. In North Carolina, nine death row prisoners have died of natural causes since 2006—the same year the state last executed someone. These delays suggest that executions must be sped up significantly.
And yet, the process that creates those delays cannot be eliminated without a corresponding increase in the risk of wrongful executions. Since 1973, 157 men and women have been exonerated from death row. The average time from conviction to exoneration is nearly a decade. Glenn Ford spent nearly 30 years on Louisiana’s death row in solitary confinement. Convicted of first-degree murder in 1984, new evidence later revealed Ford’s innocence. He was exonerated in 2014, just 16 months before he died of lung cancer. That same year, after three decades on North Carolina’s death row, Henry Lee McCollum was cleared by DNA of the rape and murder of an 11-year-old girl and released from prison.
Behind this conundrum rests a profound moral and legal problem. Decades spent awaiting an uncertain execution inflicts an additional and nakedly cruel layer of punishment on the condemned. Most death row inmates are housed alone for years in tiny concrete cells even as a growing body of evidence suggests the psychological burden of solitary confinement is tantamount to torture. In Texas, for example, death row prisoners await their fates in the Allan B. Polunsky Unit, a Polk County prison where they spend 23 hours per day isolated in 60-square-foot cells. They exit only to shower or exercise and are handcuffed, stripped naked, and subjected to a full body search when they do leave their cells.
In 2015, Supreme Court Justice Anthony Kennedy questioned the humanity of confining prisoners “in a windowless cell no larger than a typical parking spot.” In his concurring opinion in Davis v. Ayala, Kennedy cited an 1890 Supreme Court ruling that solitary confinement represented “a further terror and peculiar mark of infamy” for prisoners who’ve been sentenced to death. That kind of isolation can “exact a terrible price” and “literally drives men mad,” Kennedy wrote.
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Source: Slate, Rebecca McCray, March 7, 2017. Rebecca McCray is a writer in New York and a journalism and research fellow with the Fair Punishment Project.
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