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Our research program

  • Based on a comprehensive classification scheme of social rights on death row, we collect detailed data on the living conditions of men and women on death row in the 27 states that retain the death penalty, and on federal death row

  • We analyze the reasons for variations of living conditions of men and women on death row in different states 

  • We conduct in-depth case studies on central issues such as the access to health care, prisoners and staff interaction, and legal and political strategies to change living conditions on death row 

  • We analyze conditions of confinement from a comparative perspective by including case studies from Europe in our research 

  • We listen to experts - to the men and women who are or were on death row, and to their families 

  • Our aim is to expand the existing theoretical and empirical knowledge on the impact of multilevel governance on social rights of incarcerated people, and to understand the formal and informal norms and values that shape the lives of prisoners on death row in the United States

  • With our findings we want to encourage the implementation of constitutional and human rights standards on death row

Our research program in detail

The United States is the only Western democracy that still retains the death penalty. Although public support for capital punishment has been declining over the last years and some states such as Colorado and West Virginia have recently abolished the death penalty, a slight majority of Americans is still in favor of capital punishment.[1] In some of the death penalty states support rates are even higher.[2] Between 2015 and 2020 129 executions were carried out, and in 2020, 2553 men and women lived on death row.[3]

The U.S. case has generated two main research strands: 1) investigations into the reasons for the specific, particularly harsh punitive culture of the U.S., and 2) critical empirical research that analyzes racial and structural inequalities concerning capital punishment. This research has uncovered the racial bias of the death penalty and has shown how it disproportionately targets people of color. It has also highlighted the prevalence of generationally transmitted abuse, mental illness, and poverty among prisoners on death row. Additionally, social inequalities lead to significant differences in the access to effective legal representation, and the idea of a just attribution of the death penalty has been challenged by a number of wrongful convictions.

While these are key elements of any analysis of capital punishment, a less investigated but equally important aspect of the death penalty are the living conditions of people on death row. Prisoners often live for decades in solitary or near solitary confinement, their contact with the outside world is severely restricted, and health care is often inadequate. Recent research has highlighted the harsh conditions of confinement. These living conditions lead to psychological trauma and negatively impact prisoners’ health:[4] “bleak isolation and years of torturous uncertainty can result in a sharp deterioration in a prisoner’s mental and physical state, often making inmates suicidal.”[5]

However, conditions of confinement and access to social rights differ among states, in some cases significantly. For example, prisoners in Florida have individual access to electronic communication means such as tablets while in Texas prisoners have to write letters to communicate with family and friends. Death row prisoners in North Carolina can attend weekly religious services and common meals while in Oklahoma recreation takes place in solitary confinement. People on Ohio death row can order food from an outside provider whereas in many other states the food offered by commissary is limited and buying options are restricted. There are many more instances of these kind of differences. While some studies have looked at these living conditions on death row through the lens of international human rights [6] there is few research that provides a definition of social rights of incarcerated people and that combines human rights considerations with a more in-depth and detailed look into the actual conditions of confinement.

Against this backdrop, the Capital Punishment and Social Rights Research Initiative has generated a classification of social rights of people on death row. Bases on this classification, we are assessing and comparing the access of prisoners to communication and visitation, health care, mental health care, attorney visits, recreation, food, work, and access to creative and educational resources in the various U.S. states and on federal death row. In a second step, the project will investigate what factors account for the variations in the access to social rights among U.S. states. Based on this analysis, the Research Initiative will identify factors that can contribute to living conditions on death row that are in line with constitutional rights human rights norms.

The projects’ overall aim is to contribute to and expand existing theoretical and empirical knowledge on the interaction of the international, national and regional level and its impact on social rights of incarcerated people, to understand the formal and informal norms and values that shape the lives of prisoners on death row in the United States, and to generate new findings on the preconditions for implementing conditions of confinement that reflect constitutional and human rights standards. An important component of the project is to disseminate information about conditions of confinement and its alternatives to a broader public, and to provide resources for advocates for less punitive conditions of confinement.

[1] https://deathpenaltyinfo.org/facts-and-research/public-opinion-polls/state-polls-and-studies

[2] https://deathpenaltyinfo.org/

[ Hum. Rts. L. 77, 85, 86 (2011).

Cited in https://reprieve.org/uk/2016/10/11/death-row-phenomenon-psychological-impact-shadow-execution/

[3] https://deathpenaltyworldwide.org/publication/death-row-phenomenon/?version=html#tooltip5

[4] https://reprieve.org/uk/2016/10/11/death-row-phenomenon-psychological-impact-shadow-execution/

[5]https://theappeal.org/oklahomas-death-row-prisoners-are-forced-into-permanent-solitary-confinement-they-are-   literally-buried-alive-advocates-say/

[6] Human Rights Clinic at the University of Texas School of Law. 2017. Designed to break you. Human rights violations on Texas death row. April