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Death Row Prisoners Volunteer to Die

Late in 1997, Arizona began moving death row prisoners to a super-maximum security facility. There, they are held in small, separate cells for 23 hours a day with almost no interaction with other human beings.

In Florida, prison officials recently added a mesh to the outside of death row cells so prisoners can no longer see out. In November, 1999, prisoners were given a memo that read: "Effective Monday, November 29, 1999, standard ink pens and pencils are now considered contraband."

In Oklahoma, which, thanks to the falsified laboratory reports of now-disgraced police chemist Joyce Gilchrist, led the nation with 18 executions in 2001, death row prisoners are housed in an underground facility where they never see direct sunlight.

In Texas, condemned men were previously held at the O. B. Ellis State Prison where they could work 4 hours daily, see out of their cells, and enjoy recreation together. In 1999, following an unsuccessful escape by seven death row prisoners, the condemned men were moved to the recently renamed Allan B. Polunsky State Prison where they are locked up virtually all the time, have no view out of their cells, and make brief, solitary visits to the recreation yard.

As conditions on the nation's death rows become less humane, more and more prisoners are asking to be executed early. Death penalty opponents believe that the tough conditions and the virtual isolation from human contact are pushing prisoners so far into depression and mental illness that death becomes an attractive option.

Late in 2001, approximately 3,700 men and women were on death rows in 38 states and in the federal prison system. According to Amnesty International, 90 people had "volunteered" for execution since the U. S. Supreme Court removed the barriers to capital punishment in 1976. Two-thirds of these "voluntary" executions were carried out since 1994. Many lawyers working on death penalty cases point to the increasingly harsh environment on death row as the primary reason for the jump in voluntary executions.

An Arizona lawyer who asked not to be named commented on the situation in his state: "At some point, prisoners can no longer live like that and still be human or feel human emotions. An inner deadness sets in. The environment on death row not only makes you want to die but gives you the feeling you have no choice."

A former guard on Texas' death row said he understood why prisoners wanted to die. "Quite a few of them feel that way and I don't blame them. They are treated very inhumanely," said the guard who resigned late last year because he found the work distasteful.

Yolanda Torres, a Texas death penalty defense lawyer, said: "With inadequate medical and psychiatric attention, I have seen rapid deterioration and personality changes in these men which is what's leading to volunteerism."

"It's distressing that the only time you can get what amounts to a state-assisted suicide in the United States is on death row," said Abraham Bonowitz, director of Floridians for Alternatives to the Death Penalty. At last count, four voluntary executions were in the Florida pipeline.

Sources: Reuters, Amnesty International

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