Death Row Essay

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The ethical issues surrounding death row are many. The practice of capital punishment itself is the focus of ethical debate, as are methods of execution and the length of time before execution. Death row, where inmates awaiting execution are housed, has its own set of ethical issues. Death row is typically a separate section of the prison, inmates are treated differently, and their potential impending execution remains with them at all times. This can have greater psychological impact on prisoners, resulting in depression, suicidal tendencies, or violence toward others.

Death row is a physical location. In some prisons death row may be segregated from the rest of the prison in a separate building or it may only be a designated cell block within the larger prison. Typically, death row is maintained near the execution chamber. While in most cases the execution chamber is not within sight of the cells on death row, some prisons move prisoners from cell to cell so that each prisoner is closer to the execution chamber as their date of execution arrives. The proximity to the execution chamber in some ways is for the sake of convenience and in others this has historically has been a way to keep the thought of the final punishment in the minds of the condemned. The finality of the punishment and the proximity of the execution chamber were historically designed to increase the condemned’s sense of guilt and repentance.

Because the structure of death row is as different as the structure of the different prisons that house this location, the experiences of death row inmates can vary greatly. The physical location and its amenities and potentials for human interaction are different from prison to prison. There is no uniform format for a death row. However, death row is typically a microcosm of the prison in which it is housed. In prisons that are based on a pod system, where several inmates may share a common area between individual cells, death row is similarly constructed and there is increased human contact among prisoners, as the inmates have roommates with whom they share their experience. In more traditional prison settings, death row is a series of single cells with no cell mates and with controlled interactions between the cells as inmates share only the corridor. In these situations, the only direct interaction is with correctional officers, chaplains, lawyers, and prison officials.

Interaction with others is a point of ethical concern regarding death row. Depending on the prison, a condemned inmate may not spend his or her entire sentence on death row. Some prisoners may spend a portion of their sentence in the general population, such as until all but the final appeal have been rejected. However, in other prisons a sentence of death results in all time served on death row, unless the sentence is commuted to life in prison. Some prisons allow death row inmates to take recreation with the general population; others maintain the inmate’s separate status even at recreation times. Some death row inmates are allowed increased socialization with other inmates for classes, religious meetings, and occasionally meals. There is a pervasive isolation for death row inmates. Correctional officers can be inclined to be more lenient or more strict with death row inmates and adherence to rules, depending on their personal views on capital punishment or the nature of the inmate’s crime.

There has been a historical disparity in the number of minorities who have served on death row. This can result in a negative use of discretion on the parts of correctional officers due to personal biases based on race and/or ethnicity. Differences in race, ethnicity, religion, and culture can increase the sense of isolation experienced by individuals on death row. The psychological ramifications of this isolation can have a negative effect on individuals housed on death row. The pervasive sense of one’s impending execution and the relationships developed with individuals who slowly progress toward execution can increase psychological trauma associated with death. There is an increased possibility of depression, suicidal thoughts and actions, as well as hopelessness, despondency, and violence toward others. These psychological aspects not only affect inmates, but also impact correctional officers who work on death row.

The length of time an individual waits on death row for execution can increase the psychological impact. For some, arguments about cruel and unusual punishment associated with capital punishment take into account the long wait before execution, the uncertainty of the punishment, and the traumatic experience of watching fellow death row inhabitants taken to the execution chamber. For individuals who may have been wrongfully imprisoned, and who may or may not be exonerated before their execution, the experience and culture of death row can have even greater effects on their psychological and physical well-being.

Death row has a stigma all its own; it has a dark and pervasive place in popular culture as much as in penal history. An individual who spends time on death row and is not executed, because of commutation, exoneration, or the abolishment of the death penalty within that prison’s state, carries the weight of that experience. Returning to the general prison population can be difficult, as treatment by correctional officers may be different than their death row experience. Returning to the community, has greater issues and problems than typical prisoner reentry, as the stigma of death row is also the stigma of the death sentence.

Bibliography:

  1. Jackson, Bruce and Diane Christian. In This Timeless Time: Living and Dying on Death Row in America. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2012.
  2. King, Rachel. Capital Consequences: Families of the Condemned Tell Their Stories. New Brunswick, NJ: Rutgers University Press, 2004.
  3. McGrath, Edwin. I Was Condemned to the Chair. New York: Frederick A. Stokes, 1935.
  4. Westervelt, Saundra D., and Kimberly J. Cook. Life After Death Row: Exonerees’ Search for Community and Identity. New Brunswick, NJ: Rutgers University Press, 2012.

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