Thoughts on Death Row

I was watching the movie Capote last night and it got me thinking about death row and the psychological health of the inmates. Capote follows Truman Capote’s process in writing the non-fiction book In Cold Blood. Capote interviews one of the murderers who killed four members of the Clutter family. After spending innumerable hours interviewing the murderer, Perry Smith, Capote becomes attached because of his remorse and emotional sincerity. Smith’s appeal process lasts several years and at the end of the movie he is finally executed. The book and the movie are, to be concise, sad. Death row is absolutely terrifying. When it is put in context of a sympathetic character who you can relate to, even with his violent crimes, the death penalty feels wrong. I think the actual time spent on death row is just as frightening as the actual death itself. Imagine being told you are going to die in a week. Imagine preparing to be put to death. Then, imagine being saved (for the time being) from a delay of execution and starting the wait again.

On top of waiting for imminent death, inmates live in horrible conditions. Cells are small, some are tiny- about the size of a parking spot. Some have multiple inmates inside, others are solitary. Inmates don’t leave their cell, and frequently their only human contact is their legal representatives. They cannot participate in prison employment and educational programs and their visitation and exercise is restricted. These conditions would be incredibly difficult to endure for just a day or a week, but inmates on death row frequently have to live in these conditions for years. Other countries have passed laws limiting the amount of time a person can be on death row, though the United States Supreme Court has not yet done so. Inmates on death row in the U.S. typically spend at least a decade waiting for their execution. Some have been on death row for more than twenty years.The average time between sentencing and execution was 74 months in 1984, and in 2012 had increased to 190 months. The death row phenomenon describes the effects that time on death row has on a person, including the physical effects and the mental. Death Row Syndrome describes the psychological illness that occurs because of the death row phenomenon.

Inmates react to these conditions in different ways. Some become delusional, some sleep almost the entire day, others attempt suicide and others choose legal suicide, in other words they give up on appealing their conviction. In 1989, a German named Jens Söering murdered his girlfriend’s parents in Virginia. He fled to the United Kingdom where he was then caught. Söering’s lawyers argued to the European Court of Human Rights that the conditions on Virginia’s death row were so severe and the delays were so long that it would be “inhuman or degrading treatment.” He was extradited after the prosecutor promised not to seek the death penalty.

Sometimes I forget the death penalty exits, or I try to push the fact to the back of my mind because it is so disturbing to me. Once an anti-death penalty organization gave me a flier that stated the names and exact execution times of those on death row and it was SO disturbing. Is being executed considered a bad death? I would think so.

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