Choosing Death: The Physiological and Psychological Effects of Death Row on the Condemned and the Practice of Volunteering for Execution

The death penalty is a highly debated practice for many reasons. A few being the cost of execution via taxpayer dollars, the morality of state-sanctioned killing, and the idea of justice and closure for the families of murder victims.  The most popular anti-death arguments pertain to the eighth amendment which is used to argue that death row conditions, as well as the length of time served on death row is a form of cruel and unusual punishment. Some argue that the solitary confinement of death row inmates, for on average a decade and a half is a “death before dying”. This acknowledges the severe psychological implications of the extreme isolation of death row confinement as a punishment in itself. There is also concern for those who will be exonerated and will have to live with the effects of mental illness acquired on death row, for the rest of their lives (ACLU, 2013). Due to the production of mental illness through death row confinement, some inmates even choose to opt for death or commit state-sanctioned “suicide”. The extreme isolation of condemned prisoners through the costly use of solitary confinement, and the inconsistency of mental health and religious services in the majority of U.S. prisons, directly contribute to producing negative psychological effects on death row inmates.

The direct correlation between solitary confinement and deteriorating mental health is best described in the Supreme Court case of Ruiz v. Johnson in which it was argued “[solitary confinement] units are virtually incubators of psychosis– seeding illness in otherwise healthy inmates and exacerbating illness in those already suffering from mental infirmities” (Rodriguez, 2011). This suggesting that death row conditions actually affect inmates on a physiological scale and argues that solitary confinement is responsible for the induction of psychotic breaks in otherwise healthy inmates and further progressing illness in those who already suffer from some form of Psychosis. According to the American Civil Liberties Union, ninety-three percent of death row prisoners are held in isolation cells for 22-24 hours a day with no access to any outside privileges such as tv, radio, newspapers or reading materials outside of the Bible (2013). Their days are spent on average, in a 8×10 cell furnished with a steel or concrete bed, a small writing table, a steel door with a small slot in which meal trays are slid in and out, and a toilet which one exonerated death row inmate described as being “arms length away from (the) bed” (Graves, 2017, 1). In addition, sixty percent of inmates on death row have no window or natural light in their cell, face limited visitation schedules and are stripped of all human contact until their execution.

The elimination of natural light, human interaction and exercise are major factors which contribute to the crumbling mental and physical health of death row inmates. Countless studies have proven that solitary confinement is a breeding ground for mental illness even outside of anxiety, hallucinations, psychosis, and depression (Willigan, 2014). This leading to higher suicide rates among inmates held in solitary confinement compared to those housed in the general population. In 1986 a national study was conducted of 401 jail suicides finding that two out of every three suicides were committed by inmates housed in solitary confinement (Rodriguez, 2011). Capital murderers who are sentenced to death are the only inmates who are inevitably held in solitary confinement, with the exception of Missouri and Texas. This creates a much higher probability for suicide and self-mutilation specifically in this sphere of detention.

The heightened suicide rate may actually have to do with the physical changes to the brain due to coping with death row conditions. It has been proven that the use of solitary confinement and “long-term isolation has the potential to alter the chemistry and structure of the brain” (Willigan, 2014, para 2). According to the American Civil Liberties Union, sixty-seven percent of United States prisons have “no contact orders” in which the condemned are forbidden to have physical contact with anyone, including their loved ones during already limited visitations. This means that for some, the last time they would have hugged their parents, siblings, significant others or friends would have been before their arrest. All prison visits would be behind glass or while the condemned are restrained. No contact orders also apply to prison staff and other inmates who come in contact with the detainees. This type of contact isolation leads to anxiety, heightened emotions, paranoia and most commonly, hallucinations. The brain needs interaction with others both socially and physically to function properly. The extreme absence of natural light, human interaction (including simple conversation), and restricted space can cause re-wiring of the brain as a coping mechanism. When an inmate is placed in solitary confinement and faces this type of sensory deprivation, the brain fills sensory voids with an alternate reality which is one phenomena researchers claim changes brain composition forever.

When a person is exposed to prolonged forms of sensory deprivation, “the various nerve systems feeding into the brain’s central processor are still firing off, [..] after a while the brain starts (to try) to make sense of them” (Bond, 2014, para 17). The brain, lacking in sensory input whether it be sound, sight, touch, or smell, begins to create an alternate reality in order to make sense and process regular brain synapses. In short, this reprogramming of the brain can cause many long-term mental issues such as hypersensitivity to external stimuli (ACLU, 2013). This can also be seen in decreased EEG levels in inmates housed in isolation for a prolonged period of time. Low levels of EEG activity also indicate that parts of the human brain are shut down and brain function decreases after only seven days in isolation (Mayo Clinic). It was also observed that although some parts of the brain shut down completely, the Theta activity “which is related to stress, tension, and anxiety”, increased (Rodriguez, 2011, para 6). For death row inmates who stay an average of almost sixteen years in isolation, this is extremely dangerous and damaging to the mental health and brain function of death row inmates. Another contributing factor to the decrease in brain activity is due to the decrease in inmate movement and exercise (Mayo Clinic, 2014).

Because of current death row conditions, it is not uncommon for death row inmates to want to die rather than stay in solitary confinement. Dr. Harold Schwartz calls this “death row syndrome” in which the physical and emotional stress of death row causes the prisoner to wish to end his own life by stopping all appeals (Schwartz, 2005). This would ensure the road to execution was hastened and time spent on death row was guaranteed to end in the near future. For some, this is the light at the end of the tunnel. Death row syndrome is not recognized as an official mental health diagnosis and therefore inmates who are deemed “sane” are eligible to opt for immediate dismissal of Supreme Court appeals cases even as it has been proven that isolation conditions can affect “logical and verbal reasoning” (Bond, 2014). Richard Shaffer, author of Volunteering for Execution even argues that the appeals process is in fact not a “life-saving measure” (Shaffer, 1983). He goes onto argue the case of James French who in 1958, murdered a man just to request the death penalty. When he was denied the opportunity to die and given a life without parole sentence, he murdered his cellmate before the courts granted his wish to be executed (Shaffer, 1983). This suggesting that allowing death row inmates to chose to be executed actually transforms the death penalty itself from a general deterrent to an incentive for those who desire suicide but do not have the will to commit suicide themselves. Shaffer argues that not only does this practice change the entire message and purpose of the death penalty, but it encourages crime.

The fact that James French was deemed sane to stand trial when it was clear that his motive was suicide, was an inaccurate and unethical decision by the state itself. However, this misdiagnosing or failure to diagnose or recognize mental illness or distress is not uncommon. Some argue that these misgivings and shortcomings of Psychiatry when it comes to the death penalty are no accident. In his publication, Death Row Syndrome and demoralization: Psychiatric means to Social Policy Ends, Dr. Harold Schwartz warns that the field of Psychiatry should “not co-opt the authority of psychiatry through unvalidated diagnoses and ambiguous competency criteria to reach social and political goals they cannot otherwise achieve” (Schwartz, 2005, 155). This indicating that some of the lapses in mental health diagnosis may be connected with political and social ideals of the death penalty rather than the case of the inmate themselves.

For inmates who enter death row with a mental illness, there may be no way for them to stop their appeals. This is the reality for the estimated five to ten percent of death row inmates who suffer from a severe mental illness (Mental Health, 2014). This meaning that for some, the battle with mental illness began far before their incarceration but was either misdiagnosed before trial or not considered to be “severe” enough to invoke an insanity plea. As argued in the Supreme Court case of Madrid v. Gomez, the equivalent to putting mentally ill inmates in solitary confinement is like “putting an asthmatic in a room with little air” (Rodriguez, 2012, para 14). To make matters worse, death row prisoners are further disadvantaged by the fact that proper psychiatric care is unreliable and inconsistent in the majority of United States prisons (ACLU, 2013). Failure to diagnose and treat these inmates properly results in further progression of their illness and ensures their inability to stop all appeals and head straight to execution, like that of other death row inmates. Essentially, housing prisoners with mental illness in solitary confinement aids in the exacerbation of their illness, which in turn makes them ineligible to choose to stop their Supreme Court appeals and condemns them to even more years spent on death row with little to no mental health care. Some argue that this cycle in itself is in violation of the eighth amendment and represents just a few of the mental health issues currently not being addressed in our prison systems. It could also be argued that for some, by the time they reach the execution chamber, their time spent on death row may have potentially rendered them mentally unfit for execution.

Along with the lack of proper mental health care, according to the American Civil Liberties Union, sixty-two percent of U.S. jails lack religious services altogether or have very little religious assistance available to inmates (2013). One of the main factors in the psychological effects of both the death penalty and solitary confinement is the feeling of hopelessness it creates. This leads to depression, anxiety and heightened emotions as execution or time spent on death row linger in the forefront. For many inmates, it is the feeling of helplessness and hopelessness which leads them to volunteer for their execution. The lack of religious guidance and council is a major problem and combined with the lack of proper mental health care, inmates on death row have little reliable options in which to voice their feelings, receive treatment, and repent for their crimes. This puts even more anxiety and stress on the inmate as in some cases, there is absolutely no outlet for them to express themselves.  

Besides the fact that solitary confinement is harmful to the condemned’s mental health, it is also hard on the state’s pocketbook. While many pro-death arguments cite that enforcing the death penalty saves taxpayer money, the length of time spent on death row, an average of 190 months (just under 16 years)  indicates that not only is execution costly, but time spent waiting for lethal injection is almost its equivalent (DPIC). Housing prisoners in solitary confinement cost three times the amount of those housed in general population, $75,000 v. $25,000 per year (U.S. Government). For an inmate who stays on death row for the full 190 months, the cost of incarceration equates to over fourteen million dollars. As access to drugs for lethal injection dwindle, time spent on death row drags on costing states millions of dollars in incarceration costs (DPIC). Not only is the use of solitary confinement pricy, but in overcrowded prisons, it requires valuable space that could be utilized elsewhere.

In conclusion, the psychological and physiological changes in inmate behavior and to the brain itself indicates the dangers of prolonged periods of solitary confinement. The lack of consistent and frequent access to both mental health care and religious services serves as a disadvantage to those suffering from mental illness, thoughts of hopelessness and depression. This will become so intolerable for some inmates that they will choose to willingly stop all appeals and commit state-sanctioned “suicide” which in the end, serves as an incentive to commit murder for men like James French. Along with the negative mental and physical effects of death row confinement, the cost of housing inmates in this manner is expensive and space consuming. The prolonged period of time that condemned inmates face on death row, serves as a punishment in itself as some will be exonerated and forever have to live with the psychological and emotional effects of death row conditions.



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Willigan, M. (2014, August 4). Fact Sheet: Psychological Effects of Solitary Confinement. In Solitary Watch.

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