What's It Like Living On Death Row?

There are approximately 2,900 prisoners currently experiencing life on death row. The death penalty is a legal option in 31 states. People on death row are most likely to face lethal injection as their execution method, but there are plenty of ways to die on death row.

For example, death row prisoners in Mississippi, Utah, and Oklahoma could face death by firing squad. New Hampshire, Delaware, and Washington inmates have the possibility of death by hanging. However, William Bailey's decision to ask the state of Delaware to hang him in 1996 was the most recent usage of this option. Other potential execution methods include electrocution and the gas chamber. 

Regardless of the execution method, a death sentence is the harshest legal penalty that anyone in the U.S. can face. Movies and TV shows have attempted to show audiences what life on death row is like, but the harsh reality is way worse than most fictionalized accounts.   

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  • Death Row Inmates Face A Really Long Wait To Die

    Death row inmates often find themselves waiting an extremely long time for their execution. In fact, the average length of time these prisoners wait is more than 15 years. Shockingly, 40% of these inmates have passed the 20-year mark, with some waiting for almost 40 years. There are numerous reasons for this extended wait, including the appeals process.

    As a result, it's become common for prisoners to die on death row from an illness or natural causes before their execution date. 

  • Prisoners Often Get Only One Hour Out Of Their Cell Per Day

    Between showering, exercise, routine checks, and the occasional visitor, death row inmates receive an average of one hour out of their cell per day. Unless they're in their cell, showering, or in the prison exercise yard, they always have handcuffs on. Therefore, any approved visitation time is accompanied by being cuffed the entire time.

    Death row cells are usually only eight by 10 feet, and this includes their bed, toilet, and sink. If an inmate is lucky, they'll also have a desk and chair shoved into that tiny space. Imagine having all of that shoved into a windowless cell that's approximately the size of your bathroom. And you're locked in there for 23 hours per day

  • Inmates Have To Fear Murder While On Death Row

    With all of the safeguards in place, you'd probably think death row inmates don't have to worry about being injured or killed by another prisoner. Somehow, though, their daily one hour outside a cell can still lead to deadly consequences. Statistics indicate that 25% of people on death row will die without having their sentence carried out.

    These deaths happen from a combination of natural causes, suicide, and being murdered by another death row prisoner. This risk may make the exorbitant amount of time death row inmates usually spend waiting for their execution even more mentally torturous. 

  • Death Row Syndrome Can Be Psychologically Debilitating

    Death row syndrome is a mental health condition that only afflicts people who are sentenced to the death penalty. This psychologically debilitating issue is caused by a variety of factors, including the squalid living conditions on death row. Between the appeals process and last-minute stays of execution, it's impossible for any of these prisoners to know with 100% certainty when they'll take their last breath.

    Combine that with very limited exposure to sunlight and social interaction, and it's a recipe for disaster. Many who have suffered from death row syndrome exhibited symptoms such as deteriorating physical and mental health, self-destructive behavior, psychosis, and agitation.  

  • Inmates Are Counted Twice Per Hour, Which Often Interrupts Sleep

    Every state has slightly different guidelines, but it's not unusual for prisoner checks to occur once or twice per hour, every hour, for their entire death row imprisonment. In California, anyone in any type of isolation, including death row inmates, is checked 48 times per day. These twice hourly prison checks often involve loud keys, loud voices, and lights.

    In other words, prisoners are often prevented from sleeping for more than 30 minutes at a time, which can lead to severe sleep deprivation. The average prisoner spends at least 15 years on death row. Can you imagine what it would feel like to be continuously sleep deprived for 15 years?   

  • Death Row Cells Are Often Completely Isolated

    If you've seen The Green Mile, you might be envisioning death row as a place with bars on cells that enable inmates to see each other. This does happen in some places, but it's not the norm. Instead, most death row cells are blocked off so there is no visual social interaction between prisoners. Guards open a small slot in the solid cell door to give prisoners food and to allow them to make rare phone calls.

    This is a form of solitary confinement, and thousands of prisoners nationwide deal with this 23 hours per day. These living conditions can cause PTSD, hypersensitivity to external stimuli, fear, and rage.