The length of time prisoners spend on death row in the United States before their executions has recently emerged as a topic of interest in the debate about the death penalty. The discussion has been spurred by the scheduled execution of Michael Ross, a Connecticut inmate who has been on death row for 17 years, and by the writings of two Supreme Court Justices who have urged the Court to consider this issue.
Death row inmates in the U.S. typically spend over a decade awaiting execution. Some prisoners have been on death row for well over 20 years.
During this time, they are generally isolated from other prisoners, excluded from prison educational and employment programs, and sharply restricted in terms of visitation and exercise, spending as much as 23 hours a day alone in their cells.
This raises the question of whether death row prisoners are receiving two distinct punishments: the death sentence itself, and the years of living in conditions tantamount to solitary confinement – a severe form of punishment that may be used only for very limited periods for general-population prisoners.
Moreover, unlike general-population prisoners, even in solitary confinement, death-row inmates live in a state of constant uncertainty over when they will be executed. For some death row inmates, this isolation and anxiety results in a sharp deterioration in their mental status.