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Yale Law School Report Examines Variations in Death Row Housing Units

by Derek Gilna

The Arthur Liman Public Interest Program at Yale Law School published a report in July 2016 that examined in detail the living arrangements for death row prisoners held by state Departments of Corrections.

The report noted the wide variation in how states house death row prisoners, ranging from some form of solitary confinement to much less restrictive housing. It also cited “the growing awareness of the debilitating effects of long-term isolation” on death-sentenced prisoners, which had “become the subject of discussion, controversy, and litigation.” The European Court of Human Rights has been critical of solitary confinement, and strict limitations on that practice were included in the “Mandela Rules” adopted by the United Nations in 2015. [See: PLN, Aug. 2015, p.38].

Part one of the Yale report examined not only state correctional manuals and statistics, as well as other factual data regarding death row prisoners, but also unofficial anecdotal accounts of death row procedures in more restrictive states. In part two, the authors turned to examples from North Carolina, Missouri and Colorado, “where correctional administrators enable death-sentenced prisoners to have meaningful opportunities to interact with others.”

Of the 35 states with the death penalty, 19 specifically set forth the form of housing for prisoners facing execution – 17 by statute and two by regulation. Three states – Idaho, Pennsylvania and Wyoming – require solitary confinement for death row prisoners. Three other states mandate single-cell confinement, and another three require such prisoners to “be segregated from the general prison population, although not necessarily from each other.”

The report by the Arthur Liman Public Interest Program built upon a previous survey conducted by the Death Penalty Information Center in 2008, which covered 31 jurisdictions. That study found 20 states housed death row prisoners in some form of isolation while 11 provided group recreation and allowed contact visits with family members. In 2005, another study also reviewed housing for death-sentenced prisoners, concluding that “democratic processes of legislatures ought to decide whether that form of punishment [solitary] is necessary and just.”

The Yale report concluded after reviewing data from North Carolina, Missouri and Colorado that prisoners on death row not held in isolation were less likely to commit disciplinary infractions and less likely to be involved in violent incidents. In fact, the authors concluded, “Given the discretion that correctional officials have over housing arrangements, these states provide models to house capital-sentenced prisoners without placing them in solitary confinement.”

As of July 2016 there were 2,905 prisoners on death row in the United States. 

Sources: “Rethinking Death Row: Variations in the Housing of Individuals Sentenced to Death,” The Arthur Liman Public Interest Program, Yale Law School (July 2016);