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by Vincent Warren
It is inhumane, fallible, expensive, and an ineffective crime deterrent. It is also no secret that the death penalty in the United States is carried out in a racially discriminatory manner. African Americans and Latinos make up over half the people on death row while comprising about a quarter of the U.S. population. Looking at the race of the victim, in the last 30 years, only 20 white on black murders have resulted in execution, compared with 261 black on white. You probably can't recall the last time the State of Louisiana executed a white person for a crime against an African American. That's because it last happened in 1752.
What remains largely unseen is how, beneath a misleading veneer of due process and legal protocol, thousands of death row inmates are often subject to conditions that constitute torture, sometimes for decades on end, while waiting to be executed or exonerated. These conditions, as much as the death penalty itself, constitute violations of established international human rights law as well as the constitutional right against cruel and unusual punishment.
In 1972, the Supreme Court struck down the death penalty, declaring that its application was so arbitrary as to be unconstitutional. Although many believed that this marked the end of capital punishment in the U.S., state legislatures responded by rewriting their death penalty laws in order to convince the Court that the death penalty could be made impartial and compatible with a basic concept of human dignity. In 1976, the Supreme Court ended the de facto moratorium on U.S. executions and, since then, has tried to delineate a "modern" death penalty by calling for a better appellate process and outlawing the penalty for certain offenses and categories of people, including juveniles and people with mental disabilities. Given that the standard for mental disability is non-existent, that line has been crossed many times.
But no constitutional window dressing can legitimize state-sponsored murder or humanize the system that administers it. More than three decades after the Supreme Court reversed its stance on capital punishment, conditions on death rows across the country remain nothing short of barbaric. The Court's demand for a better appellate process has mostly extended the time death row prisoners spend in these conditions -- thereby paradoxically deepening the human rights violations -- and research continues to show that race is the dominant factor in explaining who is sentenced to death in this country.
In May of this year, I traveled to Louisiana and California to document conditions of confinement on death row together with colleagues at the Center for Constitutional Rights, and Florence Bellivier, president of the World Coalition Against the Death Penalty, there representing the International Federation for Human Rights (FIDH) on the mission. California has the largest number of people on death row in the country and Louisiana is infamous for the harsh conditions prisoners suffer. Our findings are published here.
In Louisiana's notorious Angola prison, home to all men on death row in the state, those sentenced to death spend their final years locked in their cells alone for 23 hours each day. During summer, death row inmates are kept in their cells even though the heat index regularly exceeds 110 degrees. The prison does not provide them with clean ice or cool showers, but it does provide the public with tours of death row and the lethal injection table.
At night, in an effort to keep cool, the men at Angola sleep on the floor where they are exposed to fire ants. When they "misbehave," they are moved to cells in the hottest tiers. Men have lived up to 28 years on Louisiana's death row, and most spend at least a decade in these dehumanizing conditions waiting for court appeals to go through. That is their due process.
In California, where minorities make up 65 percent of death row, the wheels of justice turn so slowly that new death row inmates will spend approximately 20 years on death row, and some over 30. Others will spend decades locked inside their cells in solitary confinement for minor infractions committed years ago, without access to a telephone and without feeling the touch of a family member for the entire length of time in solitary. Their due process while on death row? Wait an average of 3-5 years before a lawyer is even appointed to appeal the sentence, then an additional 8-10 years following the conclusion of their appeal for another lawyer to be assigned to handle a state habeas petition. In the meantime, the stress and anxiety of not knowing when they will be executed or when they will even receive the assistance of a lawyer will cause severe mental anguish for long decades, and will lead some prisoners to commit suicide rather than endure the long waiting process ahead.
And that's a glimpse of what the "modern" death penalty in the U.S. looks like in two of the states that retain it. The Supreme Court tried to sanitize a brutal practice, but it is impossible to legitimize the indefensible. The only morally and legally tenable response to the death penalty is its complete abolition. Yet while we continue to work for that day, we must also work to address the human rights violations that send people, disproportionately people of color, to death row and then torture them there before the final act of killing.