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Why Texas’ ‘death penalty capital of the world’ stopped executing people

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Since the Supreme Court legalized capital punishment in 1976, Harris County, Texas, has executed 126 people. That's more executions than every individual state in the union, barring Texas itself.
Harris County's executions account for 23 percent of the 545 people Texas has executed. On the national level, the state alone is responsible for more than a third of the 1,465 people put to death in the United States since 1976.
In 2017, however, the county known as the "death penalty capital of the world" and the "buckle of the American death belt" executed and sentenced to death a remarkable number of people: zero.
This is the first time since 1985 that Harris County did not execute any of its death row inmates, and the third year in a row it did not sentence anyone to capital punishment either.
The remarkable statistic reflects a shift the nation is seeing as a whole.
“The practices that the Harris County District Attorney’s Office is following are also signifi…

Buried Alive: Stories From Inside Solitary Confinement

Solitary Housing Unit (SHU)
Solitary Housing Unit (SHU)
It is brutal. It is torture by definition. It destroys the mind, body, and soul, making rehabilitation next to impossible. It is also outrageously expensive, and it doesn't work. Yet at the end of the Obama era, and the dawn of Trump's, isolation is as widely used as ever in the American penal system. And this is what it feels like.

"I believe that very few men are capable of estimating the immense amount of torture and agony which this dreadful punishment, prolonged for years, inflicts upon the sufferers.... I hold this slow and daily tampering with the mysteries of the brain, to be immeasurably worse than any torture of the body." —Charles Dickens, on visiting prisoners in solitary confinement at the Eastern State Penitentiary in Philadelphia, 1842.

Javier Panuco (over 5 years in solitary): Sometimes I can still smell it: the same soap everybody used, the smell of mildew, the smell of the algae that we had on our concrete yard.

Jacob Barrett (over 20 years in solitary): It smells like the toilet of a men's locker room at a run-down YMCA. It's people farting, burping, and sweating, smearing shit on their walls and windows, flooding toilets full of piss and shit.

Shawn Smith (15 years in solitary): I've had these cell walls make me see delusions. I've tried to kill myself a few times. I've smeared my own blood on my cell walls and ceiling. I would cut myself just to see my own blood.

Danny Johnson (24 years in solitary): The worst thing that's ever happened to me in solitary confinement happens every day. It's when I wake up.

Steven Czifra (8 years in solitary): That's what people don't understand when you try to explain. I'm there for eight years, and in that eight years, they have eight years of experiences. I have one day of experiences. Every day is the same.

An American Gulag


There are two kinds of solitary confinement in the United States. One starves a prisoner's senses. The other overwhelms them. In a Supermax—a high-tech dungeon specifically designed to warehouse men in isolation—a prisoner has virtually no contact with other human beings. Locked behind a slab of steel into a cell smaller than a parking space, he smells and touches only cement. He hears only the incessant hum of a dim fluorescent light that never goes off. If he's fortunate, he'll have a window.

Alternatively, in seg—an isolation cell in a max-security prison—he hears the screams and rants of other convicts echoing through the tier, morning and night. He smells it when those prisoners smear their cell walls with their own shit, when they puke, piss, or bleed. His eyes sting when a neighbor on the tier refuses to obey an order and armed guards storm his cell, beat him, and spray him with mace. Sometimes the prisoner is so cold that he wears both his jacket and his shoes to bed, or so hot he wraps his body in wet rags. All day long, doors slam, walkie-talkies crackle, keys jingle. If he ever gets out of prison, these sounds will trigger him for the rest of his life.

In the age of mass incarceration, solitary confinement—the practice of isolating a human being in a cell for 22 to 24 hours a day—has become a punishment of first resort in America. It's the prison of the prison system, and like the larger institution that feeds it, it is rife with cruelty, racism, and Constitutional violations. Though it was created to reduce violence, solitary increases it. Though it is meant to be a deterrent, solitary promotes recidivism. Though some authorities still believe the medieval fiction that it fosters personal redemption through habits of meditation and penitence, solitary irreparably harms the human psyche. Researchers believe it damages the body and brain as well, but they can't test this hypothesis, because what we do to prisoners every day—house them in prolonged isolation—is illegal to do to laboratory animals. It is against the law to treat rats the way we treat people in solitary.

A convict can be banished to solitary at a correctional officer's whim, for nearly any reason: assault, gambling, mouthing off, failing to clean his cell, singing, filing grievances, even (incredibly) attempting suicide. He can also be sent there for activism or holding unpopular views—essentially, as a political prisoner. "I told them, 'I haven't done anything,'" says Ojore Lutalo, a black revolutionary who, while serving a sentence in New Jersey for bank robbery, was banished to solitary for 22 years. "They said, 'You could if you wanted to.'" Once in solitary, the prisoner is under extreme scrutiny and may easily incur further violations that extend his term. He can of course file a grievance if his Constitutional rights have been breached; I spoke with one man who says he filed hundreds. But mail mysteriously gets lost in solitary, and litigious prisoners face retaliation.

Solitary has become an American gulag— "the place they dump the trash they most want to be forgotten," as one convict put it to me. According to the Bureau of Justice Statistics, the number of prisoners in solitary on any given day is approximately 90,000. No national database exists to track who they are, how long they've been held there, or why. Compared with free citizens, they are at least five times as likely to be mentally ill. A City of New York study suggests they are nearly three times as likely as prisoners in the general population to be black and nearly twice as likely to be Latino.

Under President Obama, who called solitary "an affront to our common humanity," the federal government and about half of the states in the country began restricting their use of solitary. These efforts gained bipartisan support for economical, not compassionate, reasons: Solitary is twice as expensive per capita as maximum-security prison. But change must come separately to hundreds of individual jurisdictions across the country—federal, state, and county—and addressing the problem in one place may only mean shifting it onto another. Particularly in states with powerful unions, such as New York and Illinois, correctional officers often condemn and obstruct reform. Their ability to send a prisoner to seg makes them feel safer, even if studies show they probably aren't.

A body of literature going back decades documents the psychic anguish of isolation— severe depression, rage, panic attacks, PTSD, paranoia, hallucinations, self-mutilation. The suicide rate in solitary is five to ten times higher than it is in the general prison population. In studies, only a few groups have ever reported feeling as crushed by loneliness as these prisoners do—among them terminally ill cancer patients and people in rural communities who are suffering from AIDS. “Solitary confinement,” Justice Anthony Kennedy told Congress in March of 2015, “literally drives men mad.”

By no means is the trauma of solitary confinement confined to the psyche. It is total. We know, for instance, that loneliness correlates with an increased risk of high blood pressure and immune dysfunction. Prolonged immobility—like spending 23 hours a day in an 80-square-foot cell—increases the likelihood of developing Parkinson’s, high blood pressure, osteoarthritis, diabetes, congestive heart failure, stroke, and chronic lung disease. We also know that solitary confinement, by cutting off the flow of social and sensory stimuli, causes the brain to atrophy irreparably, impairing spatial orientation and emotional control.

Click here to read the full article

Source: GQ, Nathaniel Penn, March 2, 2017

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