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What You Don’t Know About Death Row: Solitary Confinement

What You Don’t Know About Death Row: Solitary Confinement

Crushing silence or chaotic screaming seizes the ward. A 5-by-7 cell separates you from an equally abysmal concrete prison. If you’re lucky, you’ll get one hour of exercise in a prison yard, which is sometimes an underground concrete pit. Two of the best things to do during the rest of the hours are to pray and read. Other than that, the true imprisonment is the incarceration within the mind.

This is solitary confinement on death row, a punitive method in the criminal justice system that claims to be an antidote to criminal behavior. It has become one of the main psychiatric facilities in the U.S. But far from offering psychological benefits, solitary confinement condemns people—often with mental illnesses—to further mental torment. It is a living hell that tears the hope and sanity away from inmates’ minds.

Solitary confinement currently houses 80,000 prisoners, with 60 percent of those inmates having a mental illness. Yet, isolation is arguably one of the worst ways to “remediate” people with mental illnesses.

Even worse is how long prisoners are kept in solitary. Since the reinstitution of the death penalty in 1976, the average time between sentencing and death is 16.5 years as of 2011. For death row prisoners living in solitary, spending years in isolation is torture.  In the wake of a number of recent exonerations, the stories of death row exonerees, such as Anthony Ray Hinton and Anthony Graves, have brought additional light to the inherent cruelty of solitary confinement.

Hinton said solitary confinement is state-sanctioned “kidnapping.” He claimed that the only ways to leave solitary confinement are by exoneration, being wheeled out on a gurney or daydreaming.

Graves said the deprivation of human contact is the worst part of solitary confinement. The simple ability to hug or touch someone is taken away, leaving prisoners trapped in their bodies and minds. He said that it drains one of hope and the tools to succeed in the world. Solitary confinement damages the mind so much that if some inmates are released from prison, they may commit crimes just to return.

Keith LaMar—a prisoner who has been in solitary confinement for more than 21 years—points out that it is intended to be corrective action and dates back to the 18th century.

“They go after some people more so than others and lock them up longer and execute them more,” LaMar said, succinctly describing the arbitrariness and inherent biases that exist in the alleged corrective and deterrent nature of solitary confinement and capital punishment.

One of the principles of forensic psychiatry is that it is morally unjust to evaluate and judge people with mental illnesses by the same legal rules as people who do not have a mental illness.

Incarcerated persons with serious mental illnesses deserve humane psychiatric rehabilitation. Using isolation as a method to control prisoners is cruel and unusual, inhumane and ineffective. The death penalty should be abolished, and so should solitary confinement.

Additional Sources:


“Psychiatry and the Death Penalty.”Marianne Kastrup. Journal of Medical Ethics. Vol. 14, No. 4 (Dec., 1988), pp. 179-183.

The National Coalition to Abolish the Death Penalty has created the 90 Million Strong Campaign to unite the voices of those who believe the death penalty is wrong. We need to demonstrate that the broad public support to end this practice is already here in America, and 90 million people speaking up can make a difference.

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