Matthew Borelli, Melissa Chicker, Olivia Richman, Samantha Mckelvie
Special to the Southern News
He had attempted suicide three times during his years in solitary confinement, sitting in a cell for 23 hours every day. Michael Ross, a rapist and serial killer, had been on death row for 17 years after multiple death sentences, awaiting his lethal injection. Ross, according to the Death Penalty Information Center, a website dedicated to facts about death row, was executed on May 1, 2005 after being on death row since July 6, 1987.
“He wanted to get it over with,” said Michael Mckelvie, a retired correctional officer of the Bridgeport Correctional Community Center who transported Ross back and forth to court while Ross was in Bridgeport. “He didn’t want any more appeals or more waiting but it was out of his hands.”
According to the Death Penalty Information Center, although Ross waived his appeals and accepted his execution, it was continuously put on hold because of doubts about his competence to make such decisions.
Ross is not alone in the fact that he had to wait over a decade to be executed. This is a common problem with death sentencing, as well as the effects of extreme isolation and the controversy over the suffering due to lethal injection.
According to the U.S. Bureau of Justice, the United States’ 3,300 death row inmates on average have to wait 12 years for their death sentencing to occur. Some inmates have been on death row for more than 20 years, according to the Death Penalty Information Center.
As stated on the DPIC website, waiting on death row makes one wonder if death row prisoners are receiving two punishments; the death sentence as well as years of living in solitary confinement conditions.
According to the Internet Journal of Criminology, inmates wait out their punishment in solitary confinement, spending 23 hours a day in their cells with restricted privileges and one hour a day to exercise alone and shower. Food is delivered through a small portal on the cell door and visitation rights are limited, at least one face-to-face meeting every three months.
“Some inmates (hanged) themselves because they couldn’t take it anymore,” said Mckelvie about some of the inmates in solitary confinement at the Bridgeport Correctional Center.
The effects of solitary confinement of inmates on death row can lead to self-destructive and psychotic behavior called “death row syndrome.” According to the American Public Health Association’s website, one-third of inmates who suffer from this disease have been found to be mentally unstable caused by solitary confinement rather than by preexisting conditions.
“I think it can be inhumane,” said Julie Liefeld, director of Counseling Services at Southern. “Humans need other humans to be fully human.”
Liefeld said she believes extreme isolation has an effect on how people think and develop.
“It can cause mental illnesses and anxiety and depression can become worse,” she said. “Human beings need sunlight and bare necessities. Their brains are still seeking stimulation and experience.”
Another problem for inmates on death row is called “Death Row Phenomenon,” unlike death row syndrome, which refers to conditions inmates endure while awaiting their death sentence, such as solitary confinement.
In the case of Raymond Riles, a death row inmate in the state of Texas for the past 33 years, no execution date has or will be set because he suffers from delusions and paranoia. In his case, his illness was the reason why the court stopped his execution.
In another case from the APHA, an inmate who had been in isolation for several years said he sometimes saw things on the wall, heard voices, and became violent due to a lack of people to express his emotions to.
While some inmates waiting on death row for years face issues like this, others have problems when their execution date arrives and botched executions sometimes occur.
“With a botched execution there is always the question of whether that was intended or by pure accident,” said Southern political science professor Scott F. Creamer.
According to the Death Penalty Information Center, all 36 execution states use lethal injection as their main method.
Lethal injection was formulated in 1977 by Oklahoma state medical examiner Jay Chapman. New cases of botched executions, according to an article in Scientific American, found that if any doses of the injection do not enter the recipients properly, not only can they feel the pain, but they may also suffer a slow death by the asphyxiation following paralysis.
Also, dosages for the injection vary from state to state, but don’t vary by inmate, according to Scientific American. Each inmate, no matter the size, is given the same dosage. This means that it may not be quick or painless.
In North Carolina, inmates took an average of nine minutes to die, according to the Scientific American. In another case in 2000, Bert Hunter had a bad reaction to the injection drugs and suffered violent convulsions, and in 2009, Romell Broom’s execution
was called off after it took executioners over two hours to find a suitable vein, according to the DPIC website.
Inmates on death row are not always guilty and some already executed have been proven innocent. According to the Death Penalty Information Center, over 130 people were released with proof of their innocence since 1973. In 2000, Claude Jones of Texas was executed by lethal injection for a murder in which a strand of hair tied him to the crime. Later, it was proven to belong to the victim. Jones’ case could have been dismissed because the hair was the only piece of evidence connecting him to the case.
According to the DPIC, it is difficult to say how many of the more than 1,000 prisoners executed since 1976 were potentially innocent.