Author Archives: Alissa Marilyn Peterson

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.

The Ambulance Wish Foundation

The Ambulance Wish Foundation is an organization based in the Netherlands, with a mission similar to that of the Make-A-Wish Foundation. The well-known Make-A-Wish Foundation grants wishes to kids with life-threatening and terminal illnesses. These wishes are often extravagant and sometimes seriously awesome, like when San Francisco was transformed into Gotham allowing a young boy to be “Batkid” for the day. The Ambulance Wish Foundation (AWF) grants slightly less eye-catching wishes, but I think they are just as heartwarming. The AWF was founded by Kees Veldboer, an ambulance driver. One day he was transporting an older patient and asked him if there was anything he wanted to see while they were out before taking him back to the white-washed walls of the hospital. The patient requested to see the Vlaardingen canal, so Veldboer let the patient sit outside the canal in the sun and wind until he was ready to leave. This event led to the foundation of the AWF.

The AWF brings peace and joy to people in their final days. The foundation believes “positive end-of-life experiences are far too important to pass up.” They have over 230 volunteers, including highly trained medical staff and custom-built ambulances, and they have fulfilled almost 7,000 wishes. The article I read regarding the AWF included photos of the patients fulfilling their final wishes. These photos are heartwarming in their simplicity. The AWF specializes in older people. These people have often lived full lives, so their wishes are much more simple than those of kids who have just begun to live. The wishes include things such as seeing a favorite painting, watching dolphins, standing on the beach, seeing a grandchild, attending a granddaughter’s wedding, visiting a best friend’s grave, or my favorite, enjoying an ice cream cone with a loved one.

(Photo from , author, Evan Porter)

Another wish came from a woman who just wanted to see her home one last time. She asked to be taken to her living room where she sat peacefully for hours, looking around, most likely reminiscing on the memories and experiences from her life that had occurred in one small room.

These wishes make you realize, as cliché as it is, the importance of the small things in life. As the author says, perhaps the things we will remember at the end of our lives won’t be the extraordinary moments and things, but the ordinary ones- “the wallpaper in the house we grew up in, a sunny day spent on the water, or those little everyday moments spent with the people we love most.”

While it is incredible to read what Make-A-Wish does, the simplicity and warmth of the AWF is equally heartwarming. After reading about the many elderly who spend their final days in a hospital or a nursing home, it was lovely to read about these final days which I’m sure, made for good deaths.