World Day Against the Death Penalty
Today is the 16th annual World Day Against the Death Penalty. This year's focus is bringing awareness to the horrific living conditions of those on death row, which dehumanize them and take away their dignity.
Exonerated death row survivors and their supporters have shared with us their stories of the experience living on death row:
My name is Kirk Bloodsworth and I am the Deputy Director of Witness to Innocence. But I have another moniker; I am the first death row convict to be exonerated by DNA. Death row is a place of waiting death. Captivity beyond the comprehension.
I was housed at the Maryland Penitentiary, a Gothic-looking place with even more horrific cells. I could stretch my arms out and touch each wall by going an inch or so in any direction. Peeling paint, roaches, and bad odors coming from every direction. It smelled of death and decay. Not for my worst enemy would I wish that condition I just described on anyone.
But I am not alone... ask Ray Krone, Shujaa Graham, Ron Keine or any of the other 162 death row exonerees and they would tell you its a house of horror and hell. The only thing that needs to die is the death penalty. It is not fit for our continuation of the practice.
I was placed in a cell so small that even at the age of 17 I could extend my arms and touch each wall. It had one bed that was made of metal, one toilet, a concrete floor and then metal bars. That was it. That was death row, that was where I landed.
Once a man or a woman has been confined to an 8x10 foot cell to die, to sit and wait to die, that human being undergoes a most horrific mental and psychological experience that is far beyond explaining. And I’m talking about him or her that is guilty. Wow, you can’t even touch the man that is innocent. You can’t even touch him. I’m talking about the guilty that goes through those things. The innocent man or woman, far more. Far more.
People take for granted fresh air, trees, landscapes, and new people to talk to... freedom.
New Mexico robbed me of years of my life; they tried to kill me for a crime I did not commit. They locked me up in a little cell in a basement cave and practiced their brutality on me. At times I felt like a guinea pig for the guards’ “sociology” class, striving to see how much I could take and study my reactions. It was almost interesting to see the different methods manifest themselves as the guards grew worse and came up with innovative ways of emotional and physical abuse. They wanted to see remorse, they wanted me to take possession of “my” crime and accept the punishment prescribed to me. I adamantly would not display any acceptance of my incarceration, its random and sporadic corporal punishments, the court, or the jury. It was all counterfeit to me. It was all corrupt and hopelessly flawed. The guards were simply exemplars of the whole fiasco. I was not reticent about not buying into the system. I proudly wore the bruises of my beatings as a badge of resistance and defiance. It was all I had. It was my only means of saying that I reject this, I reject you, I reject the whole system. I will not be compliant. I will not adhere to your schedules. I will not obey your orders. I am not supposed to be here. I am innocent.
This behavior may seem self-defeating, but it kept me from becoming like some of the others who have been on death row for a while. Zombie-like, mindless carbon-based life forms, who stumbled the one or two steps to the front of their cells three times a day for a steel tray of sustenance that magically appeared in the food slot at the bottom of the cell door. Some of these guys had not talked in years, sometimes uttering primal, guttural noises that Diane Fossey may have been able to understand. I could only try to distinguish what was meant to announce physical pain, despair, loneliness, hopelessness, frustration or a myriad of other inflections. These observations kept me busy at times but troubled me greatly as I cared about these murdering bastards, and was sucked into their world of anguish as if mine were not enough to bear. Their only act of awareness is when, once in a while, they would wait in ambush and kick the food tray back in the guard’s face. This would sometimes trigger a rampage in which the inmate would go completely berserk and destroy everything in his cell. This continued until the adrenalin would wear off and his lack of stamina and endurance would conquer him.
Now after all they have done, the justice system was through with me. They won’t play with me anymore. My empty cell now awaits its next victim. Where do I go now? There were no organizations, government entities, or help for the exonerated. I needed some help and I needed it right away.
Living on death row knowing you will die is the worst feeling in the world. But to be innocent and waiting to die is unfathomable!
My brother Greg Wilhoit spent five years on death row in Oklahoma for a crime he did not commit. Oklahoma has a no contact policy for death row inmates, so for those five years Greg did not receive so much as a hug or kiss on the cheek from my grandparents, my parents, my sister, or me. Greg was brought into the visiting room in leg irons, shackles, and handcuffs. They were not removed as we visited with him on telephones through bulletproof glass. We were allowed to give the guard enough change to buy him a Coke. Since he was in handcuffs, however, if he wanted to take a drink of it he had to put the phone down, pick the Coke up, take a drink, put the Coke down, and then pick the phone back up.
We were not allowed to visit death row, but Greg often shared with us, not in a self pitying way but very matter of factly, what living conditions were like. He spent 23 hours a day in solitary, and was allowed one hour in the yard. Since death row inmates are never allowed out of their cells unless they are in leg irons, shackles, and handcuffs, the time it took to put all that on, take it off in the yard, and put it back on again to go back to their cells left maybe 30 minutes to exercise.
His meals were pushed through a “bean hole” in the door of his windowless cell. He got meat once a week. Dental care was non-existent so his teeth were falling out, and medical care was only for emergencies. Greg had very serious hemorrhoids, was bleeding, and in constant pain. I encouraged him to ask to see a doctor and finally he reluctantly did. Without our knowledge he was taken to a state hospital where he had extensive surgery. He said it was the worst pain he had ever experienced, but since he was on death row he was chained to his bed and given absolutely nothing for the pain. He screamed for three days.
Greg was exonerated in 1993, right before Oklahoma built a new death row. This one is actually underground so the inmates never see the light of day. Every human being deserves some measure of humanity and decency no matter what they’ve done or are accused of doing. Conditions like those Greg survived for five years are appalling. We are better than that.
- Nancy Vollertsen
Board Member and lawyer Elizabeth Zitrin spoke out about inhumane conditions of torture for those living on death row.
To hear Zitrin's thoughts, click here.