Entry 7: Death Row Conditions
Women currently account for less than one percent of inmates on death row in the United States (DPIC). With the majority of the offenders on death row being male, it is no wonder women are housed separately. However, it is interesting that unlike men on death row, women are allowed privileges such as watching television, associating with other inmates, and participating in work programs, at least in the state of Texas. For men, the conditions are very different and many spend 22-24 hours per day in their cell, are not allowed to interact with others whether this be guards or other inmates, and are prohibited from participating in any prison programs such as education classes or work programs. Commonly though, women are held under the same conditions as men on death row but specific policies do vary.
Biological differences between men and women may be a factor in the cases of more relaxed death row conditions for women. Factors such as sanitary supplies, pregnancy, and women’s health needs are major issues that set them apart from men on death row. According to a 2001 New York Times article pregnant women are exempt from execution when found to be pregnant citing “Article 6(5) of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (which) prohibits the United States from carrying out a death sentence on a pregnant woman” (CAMPONOVO, 2000). This means that a stay of execution would be issued in this case however, it is very unlikely that a problem like this would arise as women on death row are
housed with other women and the average wait time for execution is 16 years in the United States (DPIC).
The exceptions may be related to the stigma of the enforcement of the death penalty in regards to women and the fact that women are considered to be more emotionally vulnerable than their male counterpoints. In 2008, “the UN’s independent expert on torture asserted that, in the context of detention, poor conditions can affect (women) more adversely, compared to men” (Baker, 2014). Although the study was done on countries in Africa and focused on the harsh, unsanitary prison conditions for women there, the same problems are true in the United States. In her Huffington Post article, Laura Gottesdiener discusses the same issues as named in the report from abroad ranging from sanitary conditions and lack of supplies given for menstruation, threat of sexual misconduct by prison guards, and lack of women’s health services (2011). Women require special medical care in regards to women’s health and ignoring these needs can be detrimental. On top of these concerns, death row inmates face impending execution and in most cases, spend their days in solitude.
Death row conditions in general, vary state to state. For example in Texas women on death row can participate in work programs, watch TV outside their cells,
occasionally associate with other death row inmates and are allowed to knit and sew (Hannaford, 2015). Missouri death row inmates have similar freedom as both Missouri and Texas allow death row inmates to mingle with the general population until their death warrant is issued. However, in California women are held to the same standards of death row confinement as men, some even arguing they are more restricted than the men on the state’s execution list. In the early 1990s outrage ensued when the first women in fifteen years to be sentenced to death in the state of California, Maureen McDermott, was being held in solitary confinement. Due to a lawsuit filed in the late 1970s the prison was required to improve death row conditions however, this only applied to male inmates at San Quentin, not to condemned women. Under this court order, men held on death row at San Quentin were allowed to leave their cells from 9 a.m. to 3 p.m., play cards or table tennis, visit with other inmates, play basketball in the yard, lift weights or workout on punching bags (Corwin, 1991). They also had access to typewriters, and, “unlike McDermott, who is separated from visitors by glass and must communicate by telephone, the men are allowed contact visits” (Corwin, 1991). In this case, the gender loophole serves as a disadvantage to McDermott and others who would join her thereafter and according to Laura Gottesdiener, conditions in California women’s prisons have not improved (2011).
In conclusion, death row conditions vary from state to state. This makes it hard to definitively say that women are, as a rule, treated differently than men. Although women require more medical care than men, besides the biological differences and needs, men and women on death row are housed under the same type of conditions. However, there will always be exceptions depending on the state and their death row policies.
Baker, J. (2014, October 10). Women in prison: the particular impact of prison conditions. In Open Democracy. Retrieved from https://www.opendemocracy.net/jo-baker/women-in-prison-particular-impact-of-prison-conditions
CAMPONOVO, C. (2000, July 20). Pregnant on Death Row. In New York Times. Retrieved from http://www.nytimes.com/2000/07/20/opinion/l-pregnant-on-death-row-285692.html
Corwin, M. (1991, January 25). Waiting in Isolation: Punishment: The first woman on California’s Death Row in 15 years has fewer privileges than any male condemned prisoner. Some say that is typical of the unequal treatment of fem. In Los Angeles Times. Retrieved from http://articles.latimes.com/1991-01-25/news/mn-771_1_death-row-inmate
Gottesdiener, L. (2011, August 3). California Women’s Prisons: Inmates Face Sexual Abuse, Lack of Medical Care and Unsanitary Conditions. In Huffington Post. Retrieved from http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2011/06/03/california-women-prisons_n_871125.html
Hannaford, A. (2015, March 15). Letters from Death Row: Alone on the Inside. In Observer. Retrieved from https://www.texasobserver.org/letters-from-death-row-alone-on-the-inside/
Maureen McDermott [Photograph] (n.d.). In Murderpedia. Retrieved from http://murderpedia.org/female.P/m/mcdermott.htm
National Statistics on the Death Penalty and Race (2017, March 15). In Death Penalty Information Center. Retrieved April 16, 2017, from https://deathpenaltyinfo.org/race-death-row-inmates-executed-1976#defend
Walters, J. (2014, July 14). Solitary confinement: inside America’s dreaded isolation cells [photograph]. In The Telegraph. Retrieved from http://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/worldnews/northamerica/usa/10968713/Solitary-confinement-inside-Americas-dreaded-isolation-cells.html