Death row is a special section of a prison in the United States, that houses inmates who are awaiting execution after being sentenced to death for the conviction of a capital crime. Thirty-one of its 50 states and the federal government authorize this penalty.
"Death row" is a term also used figuratively to describe the state of awaiting execution ("being on death row"), even in places where no special facility or separate unit for condemned inmates exists.
Louisiana and several other states hold people on death row in solitary confinement and extreme isolation, in windowless cells 23 hours a day, with virtually no human contact except with guards. Such prisoners are not allowed to take part in any educational or work programs. Opponents of capital punishment claim that a prisoner's extreme social isolation on death row and uncertainty over his or her fate constitute a form of mental cruelty. Long-time death row inmates are liable to become mentally ill, if they are not already. This is referred to as the death row phenomenon. In extreme cases some inmates may attempt to commit suicide.
In March 2017, three men on death row at Angola Prison in Louisiana filed a federal class-action suit against the state Department of Corrections and prison for its policy of placing prisoners sentenced to death in solitary confinement. Each man had been held in solitary more than 25 years. Angola has 71 prisoners on death row, but the state has executed a small proportion of such prisoners, "fewer than 12 percent over the last 30 years." So inmates sentenced to death may serve nearly life in solitary.
In the United States, prisoners may wait many years as they appeal their convictions or sentences. The time between sentencing and execution has increased relatively steadily from 1977, when some states reinstated their death penalties through new legislation, to 2010. The time to execution increased between 2008 and 2009, as the Supreme Court had suspended all executions from 2007 to 2008, when it was studying the constitutionality of lethal injection as a method of execution.
Another factor since then has been the rise of non-profit law firms, the Innocence Project, and pro bono lawyers, often in association with centers at university law schools, who have provided counsel to death row inmates. In some cases they have gained full exoneration; in others they have gained new trials or resentencing, including commutation of death sentences to life in prison or time served. In 2010, a death row inmate waited an average of 178 months (roughly 15 years) between sentencing and execution. Nearly a quarter of inmates on death row in the U.S. die of natural causes while awaiting execution or appealing their cases.
Supreme Court Justices opposing the death penalty such as Justice Stevens and Justice Breyer have at multiple times argued in their dissents that the delays and waiting on death row was a factor making capital punishment unconstitutional as a cruel and unusual punishment. Their views were rejected by concurring opinions from more conservatives justices such as Justice Scalia and Justice Thomas, who said that these long delays were caused by the convicts themselves and by "Justices opposed to the death penalty."
The United States is the only Western country that applies the death penalty and conducts executions. Other industrialized and developed nations that apply the death penalty are Japan, Singapore, and Taiwan. South Korea has a law for the death penalty, but has declared a moratorium on executions.
When the United Kingdom had capital punishment, sentenced inmates were given one appeal. If that appeal was found to involve an important point of law, it was taken up to the House of Lords. If the appeal was successful, at that point the sentence was changed to life in prison. The Home Secretary in the United Kingdom had the power to exercise the Sovereign's royal prerogative of mercy to grant a reprieve on execution and change the sentence to life imprisonment.
Death rows in the United States via State
There were 3,125 people on death row in the United States on January 1, 2013.
As of 2010, California (683), Florida (390), Texas (330) and Pennsylvania (218) housed more than half of all inmates pending on death row. A shortage of execution drugs, due to European pharmaceutical companies refusing to have their products used for such purpose, has led to or influenced decisions to suspend executions in Arkansas, California, Kentucky, Louisiana, Mississippi, Montana, Nevada, North Carolina, and Tennessee.
Gary Alvord was placed on Florida's death row in 1974. On April 9, 2013, Alvord had been on death row for exactly 39 years; he died on May 19, 2013, from a brain tumor. He had been on death row longer than any other United States inmate. The oldest prisoner on death row in the United States was Leroy Nash, age 94, in Arizona. He died of natural causes on February 12, 2010.
Death row locations in the United States
Notes: 1Naval Consolidated Brig, Miramar is the only facility in the United States Department of Defense designated to house female Level III inmates.
- Live from Death Row
- The Green Mile
- The Chamber
- Dead Man Walking
- Capital punishment
- List of United States death row inmates
- List of women on death row in the United States
- Execution chamber
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