That's the title of a new white paper issued this morning by the ACLU. It's subtitled, "Solitary Confinement on Death Row." Brian Stull, Senior Staff Attorney at the ACLU’s Capital Punishment Project, is the author.
In most U.S. prisons, solitary confinement for death-row prisoners is routine. The conditions — tiny cells, forced inactivity, little or no human contact — are so damaging to mental and physical health that some death row prisoners ask to be executed ahead of schedule, just to stop the torment.
“A Death Before Dying” describes the horrors inherent to solitary confinement, conditions that amount to an extra punishment for those sentenced to death. Today death-row prisoners spend more than a decade in solitary. In 2010, the most recent year for which we have data, those executed in the U.S. had spent an average of 14.8 years in solitary confinement.
There is more on the report, including video, at the ACLU Prison Conditions website.
Brian Stull was kind enough to participate in a Q&A on the report.
Q. How prevalent is solitary confinement (also called administrative segregation) on state death rows?
A. Our survey revealed that 93% of States lock away their death-row prisoners alone in their cells for 22-24 hours per day, which fits a basic definition of solitary confinement.
Q Are solitary confinement conditions on death row substantially different than non-death row solitary confinement?
A. No. The survey and report show that they are substantially similar if not virtually identical. In at least some states, such as your home state of Texas, the physical plant at the Polunsky Unit was designed specifically to lock away in solitary confinement prisoners who had proven dangerous or had repeatedly broken the rules. The prison houses death row and non-death sentenced prisoners in identical units.
Q. It seems that there is the beginning of a national awareness that extended solitary confinement Is extremely hurtful to the mental health of inmates. As more scientific evidence of the mental health harm becomes available, do you see this being deemed a cruel and unusual punishment?
A. Absolutely. The studies consistently show that solitary confinement causes mental illness in healthy people and exacerbates it in already mentally ill people. And, when this crazy-making confinement is tied solely to sentence with no consideration of a prisoner’s conduct, it causes gratuitous and needless pain and suffering on prisoners who were sentenced only to die. And this punishment comes while they are still appealing (some end up being innocent). This is certainly cruel and unusual punishment and the courts will hopefully one day recognize that.
Related posts are in the incarceration category index.