Conditions on Death Row in Texas

In an article entitled "Solitary Men" in The Texas Observer, Dave Mann describes the conditions for inmates on Texas's death row.  Inmates in the Polunsky Unit near Livingston, Texas, spend almost their entire time alone in a 60-square-foot cell.  He writes, "The cells have a small window at one end. The steel door has a narrow window and, at the bottom, a slit through which guards slide trays of food. . . .Little penetrates these cement boxes except sound. Prison is a loud place, and sound can cause the most torment. The constant yelling and taunting and clanging doors—what one inmate describes as 'prison ruckus'—never ceases. Occasionally there are dull thuds of beatings and the screams of nearby prisoners descending into madness."  When they do get out for exercise for a short time 5 days a week, they can only exercise alone in adjacent cages.  Some inmates are kept this way for as long as 30 years, though the average stay is closer to 10 before an execution occurs.  Contact visits and televisions are never allowed in what Mann describes as "perhaps the harshest death row conditions in the country."  The article cites a number of studies showing that inmates enduring such solitary confinement conditions often slip into severe mental illness. (photo c. Ken Light).

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TIME ON DEATH ROW: After 35 Years, Texas Inmate Dies of Natural Causes

The longest serving inmate on Texas's death row died of natural causes in Dallas County Jail while awaiting a new sentencing hearing.  Ronald Curtis Chambers spent 35 years on death row awaiting execution. For much of the time, he was confined to his cell for 23 hours a day. Chambers was convicted of capital murder and sentenced to death in 1975, but his sentence was overturned repeatedly.  He was again sentenced to death in 1985 and 1992.  James Volberding, who worked on Chamber's appeals from 1996 to 2008, pointed to his case as an illustration of the flaws in Texas' death penalty system.  According to Volberding, court and prosecution errors were the cause of the long delay and he argued that these delays amounted to cruel and unusual punishment.  He said that Chambers was a changed man from the person who committed murder at age 20 and was very remorseful.  The Dallas County district attorney's office spokeswoman Jamille Bradfield stated on Monday that they were "actively preparing to retry Mr. Chambers on punishment at the time of his death."

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Georgia Execution Stayed After Suicide Attempt

Brandon Rhode, a Georgia death row inmate, who was scheduled for execution on September 21, received a temporary stay after he attempted to commit suicide. The Georgia Supreme Court granted a stay until September 24 to allow Rhode access to counsel after he was taken to the hospital on the day of his scheduled execution. His attorney filed a motion stating that his client is incompetent, and his execution would violate standards of cruel and unusual punishment. In the court filing, Rhode's lawyers said Rhode suffered from brain impairments associated with fetal alcohol spectrum disorder because his mother was drinking alcohol and taking drugs until she found out she was pregnant well into her second trimester. The motion asserted that Rhode should not be executed because his brain damage "rendered him incapable of the requisite level of culpability required to justify execution.”

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RESOURCES: DEATH ROW USA Winter 2010 Now Available

The latest edition of the NAACP Legal Defense Fund's "Death Row USA" shows that the number of people on the death row in the United States is continuing to slowly decline, falling to 3,261 as of January 1, 2010.  The size of death row at the start of 2009 was 3,297.  In 2000, there were 3,682 inmates on death row.  Nationally, the racial composition of those on death row is 44% white, 41% black, and 12% latino/latina. California (697) continues to have the largest death row population, followed by Florida (398) and Texas (337). Pennsylvania (222) and Alabama (201) complete the list of the five largest death rows in the nation. Death Row USA is published quarterly by the NAACP Legal Defense Fund. The report contains the latest death row population figures, execution statistics, and an overview of the most recent legal developments related to capital punishment.

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EDITORIALS: "What Price is Too High for Death Row?"

In California, Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger announced that his administration plans to borrow over $64 million from the state’s general fund for the construction of a new death row at San Quentin. At the same time, the governor’s lawyers have recently sought approval from the courts to furlough state workers and reduce their pay. Teachers, police officers and firefighters are losing jobs because of the budget crisis. The governor also plans to end safety net services for some of the poorest and most vulnerable citizens in the state. Yet the $64 million loan would merely be a down payment on the new death row, which is estimated to cost taxpayers nearly $500 million. According to an editorial in the Sacramento Bee, “The plan to build a shiny new 541,000-square-foot death row within San Quentin's boundaries underscores fundamental problems with capital punishment. So long as there is a death penalty, the state will need to house, clothe and feed the inmates at huge costs.”

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BOOKS: Last Words of the Executed

Last Words of the Executed  by Robert K. Elder is a compilation of the final statements of death row inmates shortly before their execution.  The book, with a foreword by Studs Terkel, also describes the crime and some of the social setting of each case presented.  According to a review in The Economist, "The last words are remarkable for their remorse, humour, hatred, resignation, fear and bravado…. America's diverse heritage is stamped even onto its killers' final moments."  Sister Helen Prejean wrote, "This is a dangerous book.  Who knows how we will emerge from the encounter?"  Robert Elder has written for the New York Times, Chicago Tribune, Salon and many other publications. He currently teaches journalism at Northwestern University.

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The Angolite: A Prison Magazine's Inside View on Choosing Execution

A recent issue of the award-winning prison news magazine, The Angolite, featured a story by inmate Lane Nelson about Gerald Bordelon, the first person to be executed in Louisiana since 2002. Bordelon expedited his own execution by choosing to waive his appeals, including his direct appeal, which was previously thought to be a mandatory part of the state's death penalty process. Bordelon volunteered for execution after he was found guilty of raping and murdering his 12-year-old stepdaughter. The choice to waive his appeals was met with strong disagreement from his team of inmate counsels (volunteer prisoners who act as attorney substitutes), who decided they would not assist him in his choice.  Bordelon was represented in his desire to be executed by a noted constitutional attorney from Baton Rouge, Jill Craft.  She succeeded in having the court allow Bordelon to waive his appeals, but later said she would never do it again. Bordelon told The Angolite why he volunteered for his execution: "I'm doing this for [the victim] Courtney.  I'm doing it for her family.  I'm doing it for me.  I'm doing it for my family so they don't have to worry and deal with it for the next 20 or 30 years.  I'm doing it for a lot of reasons."

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BOOKS: "Condemned: Letters from Death Row"

"Condemned" is a compilation of the correspondence between Irish author Sean O' Riain and an inmate on death row in the United States, known as "Ray" in the book. Riain became involved in writing letters to a death row inmate through the Comunita di Sant'Egidio, an organization in Rome that partners death row inmates with penfriends around the world. "Ray" is on death row for killing a man–-a crime he committed at a young age, and now freely admits and deeply regrets.  Among the many glimpses of life on death row explored in this book is "Ray"'s rehabilition. He writes, "I want to prove to the nay-sayer that I can be a productive citizen out in the world, I've grown up a lot since I came here and I'd like to make the ones I've disappointed throughout my lifetime proud of what I've become now."

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BOOKS: In the Place of Justice--A Story of Punishment and Deliverance

Wilbert Rideau, a former death row inmate in Louisiana who has since been released from prison, recently published his memoir, In the Place of Justice: A Story of Punishment and Deliverance. Rideau was sentenced to death at the age of 19 for killing a woman in panic during a botched robbery attempt. While on death row, he underwent a transformation and, after his sentence was commuted to life, he became the editor of The Angolite, an award-winning prison magazine that exposed abuses in the correctional system by guards and inmates at Angola Prison. Several wardens vouched for Rideau's rehabilitation, and decades later, his case was reopened. In 2005, he was found guilty of manslaughter and released with time served. He now resides in Baton Rouge with his wife.  He was recently interviewed in Mother Jones Magazine.  When asked why it took so long to be released despite support from wardens and parole officers, Rideau said it was, "Because they made me a political football. And whenever that happens, it's difficult for any prisoner to get out … the only reason I got the help I got was because I was high-profile and won awards. Otherwise, I would have been just like a lot of the other guys: alone, trying to deal with the system."

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Death Row Inmates' Long Wait for Execution May Be Second Punishment

The AFP recently examined the time an inmate spends on death row between sentencing and execution and questioned if inmates are being punished twice with long-term imprisonment and execution. They found an average inmate spends 13 years on death row, with some spending 30 years or more. Craig Haney, professor of psychology at the University of California, Santa Cruz and expert on prisoners held in isolation, said, "People on death row live under the threat of death, which is of course an extraordinary psychological trauma, and they are denied most of the ways that people make life in prison more tolerable: meaningful social activity, programming of any kind, activities." U.S. Supreme Court Justice John-Paul Stevens, in a case involving a prisoner who had spent 29 years on death row, wrote, "The delay itself subjects death row inmates to decades of especially severe dehumanizing conditions of confinement."

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