Three non-execution deaths on Georgia’s death row in as many months, including two suicides, resulted in a focus on conditions for condemned prisoners at the Georgia Diagnostic and Classification Prison. The response by prison officials was to end all contact visits with family and loved ones.
Death row prisoner Kim McMichen died on October 29, 2009 from pneumonia after being transported to an outside hospital. The New Hope Center, which provides housing for family members visiting prisoners on death row, wrote in a newsletter that McMichen’s death could have been prevented with more timely care.
Then, on November 19, 2009, Timothy Pruitt was found in his death row cell suffering injuries from a botched suicide attempt. He had tried to hang himself with a bed sheet and died on December 6 from complications related to his suicide attempt.
Finally, on New Year’s Day 2010, death row prisoner Leeland Mark Braley was found dead after hanging himself.
Following Braley’s death, prison officials implemented new restrictions they said were meant to enhance security on death row: They revoked all contact visits with family members and loved ones. Pastor Randy Loney, who ministers to death row prisoners, called the new regulations “another kind of death.”
Georgia Department of Corrections spokeswoman Peggy Chapman said the visit restrictions are meant “to maintain our practice of maintaining safe and secure prisons,” adding, “obviously there was a safety concern.” She claimed the new regulations were implemented in response to a contraband investigation and had nothing to do with the recent deaths on death row.
Sara Totonchi, executive director of the Atlanta-based Southern Center for Human Rights, was skeptical of that explanation. “They say they’re not a result [of the deaths],” she exclaimed. “Then why the hell are they implementing it all of a sudden? Just for the hell of it? It doesn’t make sense.”
Martina Correia, sister of Georgia death row prisoner Troy Davis, agreed. “Every time they punish someone, they punish the families,” she said. “The families are not bringing in [contraband]. We have to go through all kinds of stuff to get into the prison. The only way they can get materials like that into the prison is through the people that work there.” Death row visits are now conducted through what is described as a “grate” that obstructs the view of prisoners and their visitors and prevents all physical contact. “It’s a thick wire mesh,” said Pastor Loney. He made the following analogy: “If you put your hands together and make a little patchwork with your fingers and you try to look through your fingers .... You see a distorted face, and it’s dim as well because of the lack of good light.”
The new visitation restrictions, which include a cap on the number of non-family visitors, have had a noticeable impact on the demeanor of death row prisoners. “Their families are their lifelines,” said Loney, “and when they can’t hug their mothers and fathers and children and brothers and sisters, they’re heartbroken ... it’s palpable.”
Death-sentenced prisoners also say they only get about two-and-a-half hours of yard time per week rather than an hour a day as required by prison rules. This, along with the loss of recreational activities such as crocheting, has left them very isolated with little human contact.
“I think everyone agrees that there is a tremendous difference between punishment and dehumanization,” said Pastor Loney. “To deprive people of human contact is far beyond punishment. It becomes dehumanizing.”
Then again, perhaps that’s the point prison officials want to make. The Southern Center for Human Rights and other advocates for prisoners and their families have urged the Georgia Department of Corrections to reinstate contact visits on death row.
Sources: The Sunday Paper, http://solitarywatch.com
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