Death Row

Death Row Background

Capital punishment has been less favored in the 21st century than in previous decades. Twenty-first century trends have included fewer death sentences, fewer executions, and longer times between sentencing and execution. In 2013, for instance, the average time between sentence and execution was approximately 15.5 years. While the reasons for these trends go beyond the scope of this entry, it is important to note that death row is not a short-term housing unit but, rather, one in which inmates under the sentence of death spend a substantial amount of time.

The size of death rows can vary greatly. For many years, California has had the largest death row population, with more than 700 inmates in 2013. At the other extreme, some states have only a few inmates under the sentence of death, in some cases fewer than 5. The size of the death row has significant implications for how it is structured, physically and in terms of the resources required and policies specified for its operation. In addition, jurisdictions must actually be prepared to maintain two separate death rows—one for male inmates and one for female inmates. While the majority of death row inmates (more than 95%) are male, and some states have no female inmates under the sentence of death, facilities must be available for both. Male and female death rows are located at different institutions, as prisons are segregated by gender.

A series of Supreme Court cases have established limits on who may be sentenced to death and, accordingly, assigned to death row. Specifically, capital punishment is prohibited for offenders who were under 18 years of age at the time of their offense ( Roper v. Simmons, 2005 ); persons with mental retardation, which is defined differently by different states ( Atkins v. Virginia, 2002 ); inmates who are deemed legally insane ( Ford v. Wainwright, 1986 ); and those whose crime was adult rape ( Coker v. Georgia, 1977 ), child rape ( Kennedy v. Louisiana, 2008 ), or kidnapping ( Eberhart v. Georgia, 1977 ) in which there was no murder.

Death row for male federal inmates (as of 2016, no females were under a federal sentence of death) is located at the U.S. Penitentiary, Terre Haute, Indiana. Death row for male military inmates (as of 2016, no females were under a military sentence of death) is located at the U.S. Disciplinary Barracks, Leavenworth, Kansas. And each of the 32 states with the death penalty has its own death row in one of its existing prisons. Death row is not its own separate prison but, rather, is one housing unit within an existing high-security prison. The latter point is particularly significant, as death row is one of the highest-security—if not the highest—housing units within a prison system.

Death Row Housing and Security

Broadly speaking, there are two models of death row structure. One is focused on segregating death row inmates, also known as an unreformed death row; the other is focused on mainstreaming death row inmates, also known as a reformed death row. The unreformed model is far more common, as only a few states have attempted the reformed model.

Mainstreamed, or reformed, death rows are also highly secure, situated within maximum-security prisons, which also emphasize control and monitoring of the entire inmate population. However, they differ from the unreformed model in that death row inmates are permitted out of their cells for much longer periods of time, to engage in work, recreation, and programming opportunities—and in doing so, they intermingle with other inmates, sometimes including those who are not on death row. While death row inmates still may be housed together in the same unit within the prison, they are not restricted to that unit in their daily activities. Research on one state’s mainstreaming of death row inmates found it to be a safe alternative, not associated with increased institutional violence, and with the potential to be beneficial for the mental health of death row inmates.

Death row housing units place a high emphasis on security, which is the most significant factor that drives their daily operations and procedures. Security systems on death row may include, but are not limited to, monitoring of inmate behavior via CCTV (closed-circuit television) systems; remote control of door openings and closings, facilitated from a central command center removed from the housing unit, itself; regular patrol and visual inspection of inmates and the facility structure by correctional officers; restrictions on the amount of inmate movement, particularly movement outside the housing unit (e.g., for recreation, programming, and visitation); restrictions on the amount and types of personal property that may be held or received by inmates; restrictions on the number and type of visitations, including prohibition of “contact” visits (as opposed to noncontact visits, conducted through video visitation or visiting booths separating inmates from visitors); and more. Correspondence between inmates and others, whether written or verbal, may be closely monitored; only legal communication is exempt from scrutiny. The types of security systems implemented on death row are not unique to that environment but, rather, are consistent with those utilized in any high-security correctional setting. However, they may take on more significance on death row, given concerns about escape or other risks that may be posed by the inmates themselves to other inmates, facility staff, or the public.

In Prieto v. Clarke (2015), the U.S. Court of Appeals upheld a challenge to the use of solitary confinement with limited privileges for death row inmates, which is particularly characteristic of the segregated or unreformed death row model. Negative psychological impacts have been documented for solitary confinement housing generally, and research specifically focused on death row housing has found that inmates may perceive a lack of privacy and experience feelings of isolation, depression, and withdrawal. Correctional staff working on death row note the importance of maintaining professionalism and ensuring that all security protocols are meticulously followed, which sometimes leads to stress; at the same time, they also report death row to be a less disruptive and generally less stressful working environment than other areas of the prison.

Death row is intended for the housing of inmates under the sentence of death prior to their execution. However, inmates do not generally move directly from death row to the execution chamber. Instead, there is an intermediate housing unit to which inmates are transferred several days prior to their execution date. This is sometimes even located at a different prison. Usually adjacent to the execution chamber, “death watch” cells have nearly constant surveillance over the inmate, often with direct visual observation that must be documented on a near-hourly basis. Virtually every aspect of the inmate’s behavior, along physical and psychological domains, is recorded. For instance, one state’s protocols require written documentation of an inmate’s activities to be prepared every 15 minutes, day and night. It is in the death watch cell that inmates are generally read the death warrant; receive visits from administrative personnel, medical staff, or clergy; have their last meal; and are prepared for execution. Some policies may be less stringent, such as the right to receive contact visits from family prior to execution and more readily available access to a telephone.

Death Row Surveillance and Privacy

Death rows are simultaneously hidden from and visible to the public. They are hidden in the aspect that the public tends not to know where they are located (unless the person lives nearby), consistent with the “out of sight, out of mind” mentality with which the public tends to view prisons and their issues. Except for fictional portrayals in films such as The Green Mile, the public arguably has little awareness of death row. On the other hand, and in a form of virtual surveillance, many departments of corrections have websites devoted to capital punishment in their jurisdictions, often including lists of death row inmates, with a variety of information about them and details of death penalty facts and protocols.

Indirect surveillance of the execution process is provided through media reporting, illustrating Lorne Conquergood’s concept of “lethal theatre,” in which executions are underlain with ritual and some degree of public spectacle. Although the death watch cell area is generally hidden from public view, correctional agencies report and media outlets disseminate information about the inmate’s choice of last meal (for those states that allow inmates to choose something other than the daily menu) and final statement (when one is given), certainly a news-reporting ritual. In fact, at least one state audio records inmates’ final statements and places them online for public listening. This has prompted studies on meal choices (e.g., that last meal choices are generally high in calories, protein, and fat) and on final statements (e.g., that they more frequently express remorse, admitting guilt rather than containing declarations of innocence or unfairness).

The execution itself is witnessed only by those parties permitted by the state systems—typically, the victim’s family, a selected number of public witnesses, media representatives, and in some jurisdictions members of the inmate’s family. In rare cases, executions have been broadcast on CCTV systems when the number of victim family members in attendance exceeds the capacity of the witness area (e.g., when Timothy McVeigh was executed for his role in the bombing of the Alfred P. Murrah Federal Building in Oklahoma City) or have been recorded pursuant to a court order for the purpose of reviewing the execution process. In no case has an execution in the modern era (post-1976, after the temporary moratorium on capital punishment imposed by the Supreme Court in Furman v. Georgia, 1972 , was lifted in the subsequent case of Gregg v. Georgia, 1976 ) been publicly televised. The issue has never been addressed by the Supreme Court, but lower courts have consistently denied requests to do so, including requests from reporters ( Garrett v. Estelle, 1977 ), pay-per-view providers ( Entertainment Network, Inc. v. Lappin, 2001 ), and the inmates themselves ( Lawson v. Dixon, 1994 ). Again, however, indirect surveillance is provided through the media when reporters or other witnesses share their observations of the execution.

Recent debates about privacy and surveillance have addressed the sources of drugs used for lethal injection (as of 2016, the method used in almost all executions). As some drugs have become in short supply, states have changed their protocols, for which the Supreme Court provided fairly wide latitude in Glossip v. Gross (2015) , and sought alternate supply sources. Some states have enacted legislation that shields from public discovery the source from which execution drugs are obtained. An argument in favor is that it protects the privacy of drug suppliers who, if publicly known, might not be willing to provide execution drugs; an argument in opposition is that confidentiality makes more difficult an assessment of whether the drugs being used would constitute cruel and unusual punishment in violation of the Eighth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution. This issue remains under debate as states differ in their policies.


Although the popularity of capital punishment has declined, it is still issued as a sentence in some cases. In those cases, death row serves as the area of confinement for offenders under a sentence of death. As illustrated herein, death row is subject to many security protocols and, while generally hidden from public view, becomes the subject of public attention and media focus as executions draw near and are conducted.

Stephen S. Owen

See also Capital Punishment ; Prisons and Jails ; Punishment ; Solitary Confinement

Further Readings

Atkins v. Virginia, 536 U.S. 304 (2002).

Arrigo, Bruce and Jennifer Bullock. “The Psychological Effects of Solitary Confinement on Prisoners in Supermax Units.” International Journal of Offender Therapy and Comparative Criminology, v.52 (2008).

Brown, Kelly and Melissa Benningfield. “Death Row Correctional Officers: Experiences, Perspectives, and Attitudes.” Criminal Justice Review, v.33 (2008).

Coker v. Georgia, 433 U.S. 584 (1977).

Conquergood, Lorne. “Lethal Theatre: Performance, Punishment, and the Death Penalty.” Theatre Journal, v.54 (2002).

Cunningham, Mark, et al. “Is Death Row Obsolete? A Decade of Mainstreaming Death-Sentenced Inmates in Missouri.” Behavioral Sciences and the Law, v. 23 (2005).

Eberhart v. Georgia, 433 U.S. 917 (1977).

Entertainment Network, Inc. v. Lappin, 134 F. Supp. 2d 1002 (2001).

Ford v. Wainwright, 477 U.S. 399 (1986).

Fretland, Katie. “Records Show Oklahoma Officials Wanted Perks for Helping Texas in Search for Scarce Lethal Injections.” Colorado Independent (March 18, 2014). (Accessed June 2016).

Furman v. Georgia, 408 U.S. 238 (1972).

Garrett v. Estelle, 556 F.2d 1274 (1977).

Glossip v. Gross, 576 U.S. ___ (2015).

Gregg v. Georgia, 428 U.S. 153 (1976).

Johnson, Robert. Deathwork: A Study of the Modern Execution Process (2nd ed.). Belmont, CA: Wadsworth, 1998.

Kennedy v. Louisiana, 554 U.S. 407 (2008).

Lawson v. Dixon, 510 U.S. 1171 (1994).

Peppers, Todd and Laura Trevvett Anderson. Anatomy of an Execution: The Life and Death of Douglas Christopher Thomas. Boston, MA: Northeastern University Press, 2009.

Prieto v. Clarke, 780 F.3d 245 (2015).

Rice, Stephen, et al. “Of Guilt, Defiance, and Repentance: Evidence From the Texas Death Chamber.” Justice Quarterly, v.26 (2009).

Roper v. Simmons, 543 U.S. 551 (2005).

Snell, Tracy. “Capital Punishment, 2013: Statistical Tables.” (Accessed June 2016).

Wansink, Brian, et al. “Death Row Nutrition: Curious Conclusions of Last Meals.” Apetite, v.59 (2012).