Why do we execute prisoners?

Death row inmates in US custody await their execution for years - critics speak of psychological torture: Excruciating waiting for the execution

Loneliness, inactivity, and emptiness characterize life on death row. The prisoners are under particularly close guard, as a rule they are alone in their cell 23 hours a day. Death row inmates only have limited visiting rights. Often they have nothing to do with the exception of planning new appeals against their impending execution.

Psychology professor Craig Haney of the University of California at Santa Cruz has examined many prisoners on US death row and explored the deep emotional marks of this life on the verge of death. "I've had clients who waited on death row for more than 20 years," says Haney.

"Many are so desperate that they just give up," he says. Depression and other mental illnesses are widespread on death row, and many prisoners are suspicious and completely apathetic. "The privation weighs heavily on them, as does the humiliation and isolation." Many prisoners simply run out of strength after a few years to get through the legal hurdles to reopen the trials and to avert the execution.

With the high number of death sentences passed by US courts and the much lower number of actual executions, many convicts are now aging on death row. In 2005, the proportion of death row inmates over the age of 60 was four times higher than in 1995.

The majority die of health problems

For example, in the state of Kentucky, more death row inmates have died from health problems than from executions in the past 30 years. Only three people have been executed in Pennsylvania since 1976, but the courts there award an average of four death sentences each year. More than 220 delinquents are currently incarcerated there.

The record is held in California, where almost 700 convicts are waiting to be executed. Since 2006, the execution there has been suspended because of a legal dispute over executions with lethal injection.

Opponents of the death penalty see the long waiting times as one more reason to completely abolish this type of punishment. Of course, they won't get any further in court. The Supreme Court in Washington has repeatedly rejected motions to examine the constitutionality of long waiting times on death row. Only a minority of the nine chief judges oppose the death penalty in principle.

Violation of the US Constitution

One of them, John Paul Stevens, wrote a few months ago in a minority opinion that the waiting times alone amounted to "particularly inhumane prison conditions" and therefore violated the constitution. The case concerned an inmate who had been on death row for 29 years. A majority for an end to the death penalty is not in sight in the USA, neither in the Supreme Court nor in public opinion.

Meanwhile, conservative lawyers in favor of the death penalty are proposing another way to shorten the excruciatingly long waiting times for death row inmates: prisoners should forego all appeals and appeals against the death sentence - and thereby speed up their own execution.