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Conditions on death row are horrible, but women have it especially hard

Women on death row face solitude, sexual violence, and more, often after lives already marked by trauma.
Tamar Sarai Davis January 11th, 2021
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As the scheduled execution of Lisa Montgomery draws nearer, attorneys representing Montgomery are requesting that the federal government grant clemency in her case and reduce her sentencing to life in prison without the possibility of parole. In the past few months, however, Montgomery’s defense team has also raised concerns about the conditions Montgomery has endured while imprisoned on death row, with the ACLU filing a lawsuit last November against leadership within the Federal Bureau of Prisons, Attorney General William Barr, and wardens at Federal Medical Center-Carswell where Montgomery is incarcerated.

There, since October 16, 2020, Montgomery has been living in a single cell under near-constant surveillance by a team of all-male prison guards. The suit alleges that she was deprived of all of her belongings, including books, her wedding ring, pictures of her children, and her clothes including her undergarments. Montgomery was instead made to wear a “safety smock” which features a Velcro closure that easily exposes her body. Only after 14 days of consistent requests was Montgomery given undergarments ,and yet those were only a pair of mesh underwear—hardly sufficient to ensure her an adequate level of privacy. According to the suit, when prison staff provided Montgomery with these underclothes, they instructed her to “be a good girl now.” Montgomery’s team says that “as a survivor of repeated rapes, Mrs. Montgomery was reminded of the warning language often used by her mother as she forced young Lisa to have sex with strange men.”

Since childhood, Montgomery has been subjected to ceaseless sexual violence, abuse, and torture which has had severe psychological impacts including complex PTSD, routine dissociation from reality, and a severe discomfort with being alone with men under any circumstances. As Prism reported, her traumatic background is one shared by many of the women who ultimately end up sentenced to death in the U.S. Similarly, both her solitary confinement and the lack of personal privacy are also illustrative of the ways women on death row are treated across the country, where women endure harsh conditions for decades before finally being executed. According to attorneys representing Lisa, this treatment is also not doled out consistently, underscoring how gender bias emerges at every stage of capital sentencing. At FMC-Carswell, where male death row prisoners are also detained, the suit alleges that “defendants have not forced condemned men to experience anything like Mrs. Montgomery’s current conditions of confinement.”

The constant solitude, omnipresent surveillance, lack of personal privacy, and stripping away of all meaningful belongings have triggered the personal traumas that she has faced throughout her life, thus amounting to torture. In that experience, she’s not alone.

‘The surer you are, the slower you move’

For most, a capital sentence amounts to two forms of torture: not only the execution itself, but also the years-long incarceration leading up to it. In the past 40 years, people sentenced to capital punishment have seen the length of time spent on death row—that is, the time period between their sentencing and their execution or exoneration—become increasingly prolonged. In fact, the average amount of time spent on death row is about 20 years.

Prior to the reinstatement of the death penalty in 1976, time spent on death row was far shorter, amounting to a few years or just weeks. Lengthy periods on death row only became a fixture of capital punishment in the wake of reforms ushered in after the reinstatement of capital punishment. These reforms sought to extend the appellate review process in order to allow more time for defense teams to appeal capital sentences. In a 2001 interview with the Atlanta Journal-Constitution, former Georgia Attorney General Mike Bowers commented on the length of the death penalty process saying that “overwhelmingly, people say it [the death penalty] should exist for certain heinous crimes. At the same time, people are just as adamant that every avenue should be exhausted to make sure there is no chance they are not guilty. The surer you are, the slower you move.”

While lengthy stays on death row may create space and time to gather evidence that could potentially exonerate condemned defendants, they also create what has come to be known as “death row syndrome,” or the adverse psychological impacts of prolonged time spent on death row. The deterioration of mental health while on death row stems in part from the stress of constantly anticipating one’s own death while managing the looming uncertainty of the exact date execution will take place. The use of solitary confinement in extremely small cells is also a significant stressor, with many on death row living in cells no larger than a parking space. Multiple studies have found solitary confinement to cause suicidal ideations, hallucinations and delusions, psychosis, and other mental health problems—even among people who are non-capitally sentenced and are subjected to solitude for comparatively shorter amounts of time.

While recent lawsuits and legislation in states like Virginia, Pennsylvania, and Louisiana have challenged the use of solitary confinement on death row, it is still widely practiced. In fact, the death row exists as a separate sphere within prisons because in most states, people condemned to capital punishment are kept away from the general population. The relatively small number of women who are capitally sentenced nationwide means that some states may only have one woman confined to death row at a time, resulting in them being kept in solitude by default. Solitary confinement can mean being subjected to life in a single cell for up to 24 hours per day. In states where female death row populations are larger, such as Texas and California, women on death row may be housed together, but many are still denied contact visits with loved ones.

Dr. Mary Atwell, professor emeritus of criminal justice at Radford University, says that a particularly shocking example of the degree of solitude that people on death row are placed in was the case of Teresa Lewis who was executed by the state of Virginia in 2010.

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Her chaplain, who came to visit her, had to come and meet with her by sitting outside her cell and trying to talk to her through a crack in the floor-to-ceiling door, Atwell explained. Those meetings were virtually the only association Lewis had with another person while she was on death row.

Atwell says the widespread use of solitary confinement for people on death row is a relatively recent phenomenon emerging in the 1990s in tandem with other tough-on-crime policies that have shaped much of how the carceral system presently operates. Before the ‘90s, women on death row were generally allowed to spend time with one another and had access to religious programs, substance abuse treatment, recreation, and visitation, which some found to be healing experiences.

For women, death row brings added horrors

While all people on death row face the unique tortures of prolonged sentences and solitary confinement, women who are capitally sentenced are also subject to the horrors of rampant sexual abuse and violence.

According to a 2004 ACLU report, one in five women on death row who were surveyed reported being assaulted or harassed while in prison, and a third said that corrections officers observed them while showering, using the toilet, and getting dressed. Women's experiences of sexual violence on death row mirror those of incarcerated women who are not capitally sentenced. As Ms. Magazine reporter Chandra Bozelko wrote last summer, “the problem of prison rape, mainly for women, is epidemic and we’re doing very little about it.” While women comprise less than 10% of the U.S. incarcerated population, they account for 75% of all reported assaults—a percentage that is likely even higher given the risks of retaliation for those who do report.

The lack of privacy afforded to these women can often exacerbate the past trauma that an overwhelming number of these women have experienced—trauma that is often linked to the crimes for which they were sentenced to death.  

The outsize impact of gendered violence is a common thread in the lives of incarcerated women not only on death row, but within the prison system at large. In addition, women’s traumatic experiences on death row—and the increasingly long amounts of time spent subject to what may be a uniquely torturous kind of incarceration—mark one area where the movement to reform or abolish the death penalty intersects the movement for prison abolition. The conditions faced by women awaiting execution reveal how these two systems and the push to abolish them are inseparable from one another, and why they belong in the same discussion.    

This story is part of Prism’s series on women and the death penalty in the United States. Click here to read part one on Lisa Montgomery and the common history of gendered abuse many women on death row share, here to read part two on how women can be condemned in part for defying gender stereotypes, and here to read part three on the unique burdens Black women face in capital cases. In next week’s installment, we’ll look ahead to the future and examine how abolitionists are working toward a world without capital punishment.


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