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Solitary Confinement for Death Row Prisoners a Blot on U.S. Justice System

Although more and more states have abolished the death penalty in recent years, with six states doing away with capital punishment since 2007, the death penalty still has strong support in certain elements of society, notably among lawmakers. However, there should be little dispute as to the growing body of evidence that indicates holding death row prisoners in solitary confinement is both dehumanizing and damaging.

According to a 14-page report released by the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) in July 2013, more than 3,000 death row prisoners nationwide are held in solitary confinement. Although the separation of death-sentenced prisoners from the general prison population is cloaked in the legitimacy of the judicial process and deemed acceptable by the courts and the rest of the justice system bureaucracy, the fact remains that placing death row prisoners in solitary for years or decades before executing them constitutes a sadistic form of “death before dying.”

Even if condemned prisoners held in solitary are eventually exonerated and released – and 142 have been since 1973 – the long years of forced isolation take their toll on the physical and mental well-being of those on death row.

As the ACLU report puts it, “While many in the United States understand that part of the horror of the death penalty is living day in and day out with the threat of execution, most are unaware that the vast majority of death row prisoners also suffer under conditions of extreme isolation that compromise their physical and mental health and needlessly inflict pain and suffering.”

Jails and prisons are by their very nature isolating and restrictive. Prisoners are confined because a judge or jury has determined they must be separated from the rest of society. Thus, prisoners’ contact with the outside world is severely limited in the name of security, and few courts feel compelled to overrule the policies and procedures instituted by corrections officials.

No one, including most prisoners, expect conditions of confinement to be other than Spartan, but even in the most basic correctional settings they can still expect to get at least one hour of “exercise” outside their cells, regular showers, two or three meals a day, basic medical care, some telephone access to the outside world, mail, a television, etc.

However, many of these limited amenities – a bare minimum of life’s creature comforts – are denied to prisoners on death row, who are often housed in austere cells ranging from 36 square feet to just over 100 square feet, or the size of an average bathroom. They can expect “little human contact or interaction ... reduced or no natural light ... severe constraints on visitation, including the inability to ever touch friends or loved ones,” according to the ACLU report.

The report raises several interesting points that often escape the notice of prisoners’ rights advocates, in that it focuses not only on the hardship of solitary confinement, which has been well-documented in recent years [see, e.g., PLN, Oct. 2012, p.1], but also on what the ACLU terms the “double” punishment suffered by condemned prisoners, who must endure extra-judicial treatment not included in their death sentence. For example, the very nature of their confinement prevents most death row prisoners from working on potential appeals, exercising their religious rights, being employed in meaningful prison jobs or furthering their education.

The report also makes clear that with the exception of emergency medical treatment, a prisoner on death row lives almost his entire life within his cell. His bed is a thin pad over a steel bed frame or concrete slab; his toilet and sink a single formed piece of metal. His meals are passed through a “chuck hole,” and the guards who deliver them may be the only other people he sees or speaks with the entire day.

Is it any wonder that many death row prisoners’ hold on sanity is tenuous – including those who didn’t already have mental problems before they were sentenced to death? In a 2003 article published by Human Rights Watch entitled “Ill Equipped: U.S. Prisons and Offenders with Mental Illness,” a prison psychiatrist stated, “It’s a standard psychiatric concept, if you put people in isolation, they will go insane.... Most people in isolation will fall apart.” Health professionals have noted that in addition to psychiatric disorders, prisoners on death row also experience weight loss, appetite loss, heart palpitations, headaches, trouble sleeping, dizziness, self-mutilation, suicide attempts and a decline in brain function.

Even some corrections officials feel that the current treatment of death row prisoners is inhumane, including Jeanne Woodford, a former warden of San Quentin State Prison in California. “I know that safety for staff, prisoners, and the public is the utmost concern,” she said. “But I also know we can do this in a humane way. Death rows should be designed to allow prisoners to leave their cells, participate in programs, and spend time on the yard without coming into physical contact with staff, but where they can be observed by staff visually. Where prisoners are well-behaved, 23/1 solitary is ridiculous.”

Several state and federal judges, including Supreme Court Justices Stephen Breyer and John Paul Stevens, have addressed the inhumanity of the current death penalty process, where in many cases the only prisoners being put to death are those who “volunteer” to be executed by dismissing their appeals after enduring years of solitary confinement on death row.

“I saw guys who dropped their appeals because of the intolerable conditions,” observed Anthony Graves, who spent 12 years on Texas’ death row, mostly in solitary, until he was exonerated in 2010. “Before his execution, one inmate told me he would rather die than continue existing under these inhumane conditions. I saw guys come to prison sane, and leave this world insane, talking nonsense on the execution gurney. One guy suffered some of his last days smearing feces, lying naked in the recreation yard, and urinating on himself.”

One wonders what it will take for the courts to acknowledge what most people familiar with conditions on death row already know: that extended solitary confinement constitutes “cruel and unusual punishment” for condemned prisoners – and for all other prisoners held in solitary for that matter.

Source: “A Death Before Dying: Solitary Confinement on Death Row,” American Civil Liberties Union (July 2013), available at:

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