Skip navigation
× You have 2 more free articles available this month. Subscribe today.

Report Finds Texas Death Row Conditions Violate Basic Human Rights

by Matt Clarke

In April 2017, the University of Texas School of Law’s Human Rights Clinic published a report that found living conditions on death row in Texas violate “basic human rights as well as a number of international treaties that were voluntarily ratified by the U.S. and which are binding on Texas.”

Because the Texas Department of Criminal Justice (TDCJ) refused to allow interviews with death row prisoners, the Clinic had to gather information from them via questionnaires. Researchers did conduct interviews with former condemned prisoners who had been exonerated and released, or had been moved to the prison system’s general population following a successful appeal of their capital sentence. The Clinic also interviewed death penalty advocates and capital punishment attorneys.

By policy, Texas death row prisoners are subjected to solitary confinement conditions and locked in 8-by-12-foot cells for 23 hours a day with one hour for recreation in a slightly larger, unfurnished cell. In practice, exercise is only permitted two-to-four times a week, not seven as required by policy. When they go to recreation and at all other times, condemned prisoners are kept isolated from other prisoners; they are served meals in their cells and shower alone. They have virtually no opportunity to interact – much less converse – with other human beings.

Texas death row prisoners are not allowed to watch television or use a phone (except for calls from their attorneys). They may purchase an overpriced, poor-quality radio from the prison commissary, but it can be confiscated for even minor disciplinary infractions and some TDCJ guards write disciplinary reports for the most insignificant of reasons.

Prisoners on death row are not allowed contact visits with friends and family even when their execution is imminent. The only religious materials provided by the prison chaplain is the Bible, and religious volunteers and volunteer chaplains are rarely permitted to meet with prisoners due to alleged staffing shortages that make escort guards unavailable.

Even attorney visits on death row are not contact visits, and generally not even private due to the availability of only one private visitation cubicle. This means that lawyers must often discuss privileged legal information with their clients within earshot of other people.

Texas’ death row was not always like this. Prior to the attempted escape of seven condemned prisoners from the Ellis Unit in November 1998 – one of whom made it over the fence only to be found dead a few days later [see: PLN, April 1999, p.13] – death row prisoners were allowed to work, eat and take classes along with general population prisoners, and to have recreation with each other. In 1999, death row was moved to the more modern Polunsky Unit and, according to exonerated death row prisoner Anthony Graves, it “became a rights-free zone” that was “terrible and absolutely inhumane.”

 Conditions became so onerous that over 10% of prisoners executed since then “volunteered” for lethal injection by dropping all of their appeals. They chose execution over life on death row in Texas.

The 48-page report by the Human Rights Clinic also noted that medical care is difficult to obtain on death row while mental health treatment is virtually nonexistent. Initial access to such care is controlled by guards, who frequently “forget” to forward requests for medical services to the medical department. Even if they are forwarded, responses often take days and health care providers may be disinterested in the health needs of men who will likely be executed anyway.

Mental health care is even worse, with “treatment” limited to prisoners taking psychotropic medications that induce sleepiness. One death row prisoner said prison staff tried to get him to sleep until he was executed. Psychiatric interviews are conducted on the cell block within hearing of other prisoners – a barrier to effective treatment.

Unsurprisingly, the stress of awaiting execution causes mental health issues for many condemned prisoners, some of whom had diagnosed mental illnesses prior to their incarceration. This stress is exacerbated by Texas’ practice of scheduling execution dates before all avenues of appeal have been exhausted. Thus, a prisoner may be scheduled for execution only to receive a last-minute stay a half-dozen times before being put to death or otherwise removed from death row. These are effectively “mock executions,” which cause post-traumatic stress disorder that continues to affect even exonerated prisoners, according to the report.

The Human Rights Clinic also stated that long-term segregation on death row without the ability to interact with others violates the UN’s Convention Against Torture, the American Declaration on the Rights and Duties of Man, and the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights. The physical isolation and other conditions on Texas’ death row have been criticized by the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights and several UN committees and Special Rapporteurs. Nonetheless, condemned prisoners continue to endure inhumane conditions.

“Offenders on death row are individuals who have been convicted of heinous crimes and given the harshest sentence possible under the law,” said TDCJ spokesman Jason Clark. “TDCJ will continue to ensure it fulfills its mission of public safety and house death row offenders appropriately.”

He did not address the fact that 13 death row prisoners in Texas have been exonerated and released from 1987 to 2015, despite receiving the state’s harshest sentence. 

Sources: “Designed to Break You: Human Rights Violations on Texas’ Death Row,” University of Texas School of Law, Human Rights Clinic (April 2017);


As a digital subscriber to Prison Legal News, you can access full text and downloads for this and other premium content.

Subscribe today

Already a subscriber? Login