The first study of its kind has revealed that at least 4.1% of those sentenced to death in the modern era are innocent. This grim figure shows the extent of possible miscarriages of justice and is even higher if wrongful convictions due to official misconduct are included.
Long-term solitary confinement costs taxpayers, does nothing to rehabilitate prisoners, and increases mental illness and suicide rates. It is cruel and unusual punishment, and states should stop using it.
In the United States, death row is a harrowing and mysterious place. Prisoners live in dark, cramped cells where they can see each other only through small windows caked with grime and surrounded by barbed wire and guards’ radios.
They spend most of their time alone except for one hour each day when they are allowed to exercise and shower. While the death penalty has declined in recent years and opposition to it is growing, it remains a deeply rooted American practice. Even as the number of executions has dropped, tens of thousands of people stay on Death Row.
Many of them were convicted in grossly unfair trials or based on torture-tainted evidence and without adequate legal representation. Others have been forgiven, leading to appeals and resentences that add years to their sentences.
The length of their wait for execution has quadrupled since the 1980s and is now more than 22 years, according to the Bureau of Justice Statistics. Those on Death Row are more likely to come from lower socioeconomic backgrounds or belong to a racial or religious minority.
They are also more likely to have a mental illness or be suffering from a chronic disease that makes it challenging to participate in the legal process. This can make it harder for them to prove their innocence or get adequate medical care and treatment.
Interpreting death row statistics underscores the urgency of a thoughtful and informed dialogue surrounding the complex issues surrounding capital punishment, urging society to grapple with the ethical implications and systemic challenges inherent in its application.
Ages of Inmates on Death Row
As the death penalty has become less common, inmates on Death Row tend to be older. Almost a third of all prisoners on Death Row are over 50, according to the National Coalition to Abolish the Death Penalty’s data. The group says the increase in ages reflects several factors, including lengthy legal appeals and delays in executing condemned prisoners.
The older inmates on Death Row also have more time to grow mentally ill. Inmates on Death Row have spent an average of about 15 years in solitary confinement, and this prolonged isolation can cause severe psychological problems. Some prisoners have died as a result of this treatment. Those on Death Row are also more likely to be abused and mistreated by staff members.
This is a significant reason why the National Coalition to Abolish the Death Penalty and the Innocence Project. This nonprofit organization focuses on DNA testing to exonerate people wrongly sent to death row and support the elimination of the death penalty. Eighteen- to twenty-year-olds are a distinct group of people who should be exempt from the death penalty because of their immaturity.
Many states allow children to be sentenced to death, but the Supreme Court’s ruling in Roper v. Simmons in 2005 made it clear that executing juveniles is unconstitutional. The National Coalition to Abolish the Death Penalty has called on Congress to pass a law that would make it illegal to run anyone who committed a crime as a juvenile.
Relatives of Inmates on Death Row
When someone is sentenced to death, family members also suffer. The stigma of having a loved one on Death Row often prevents mental health professionals from providing treatment to them, and many relatives feel they can’t turn for help because they fear they’ll be judged or dismissed.
Those who know a death row inmate often have to juggle work and care for children whose lives are disrupted by their parent’s incarceration. In addition, the frequent and sometimes invasive in-person visits to their family member may be emotionally challenging for families. Good visiting practices, like allowing families to touch and play together and providing NGOs to accompany children during prison visits, can make a difference in the child’s life.
The conditions on Death Row are often described as harsh. Inmates spend most of their time in their cells except when in their dayroom for exercise, showers, or a social or legal phone call. Their meals are served in cellblock pods, and are not allowed to eat in the general population’s dining halls.
These conditions, coupled with the long and complicated process of seeking a stay of execution and the uncertainty surrounding whether an inmate’s lethal injection will be successful, can take a severe emotional toll on family members. According to the TAVP report, relatives of inmates on Death Row often suffer from depression and symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD).
Death Rates by State
In the United States, where the death penalty is still legal and executions continue to occur, the vast majority of those on death row live with the knowledge that they will be executed, barring a miracle. The weight of that knowledge disproportionately falls on those with less privileged socioeconomic backgrounds or who belong to a racial, ethnic, or religious minority group. In addition, many are incarcerated in conditions that violate international human rights law.
According to DPIC’s research, over half of all inmates on death row spend two decades or more on death row. This is mainly because twelve states allow prisoners on death row to be kept in prolonged solitary confinement, which violates human rights law.
This is a huge problem, and it can be changed. However, the death rate has decreased over recent years. At the end of 2019, there were 2,570 inmates on death row, a sharp decrease from a peak of 3,601 at the end of 2000. New death sentences have also declined, and the number of people who have been exonerated from wrongful capital convictions has increased.
Although deaths from suicides and accidental overdoses spiked during the COVID-19 pandemic, they have since returned to pre-pandemic levels. Nevertheless, the impact of the pandemic will be felt for years to come.