Monday, July 9, 2012

Life on death row

Just what does it mean to be locked up in Texas' death row in Livingston, Texas? Last week the BBC ran an interview with convicted death row inmate Ivan Cantu conducted by Paul Allen. In it, Mr. Cantu paints a stark picture of what it means to be locked in a cell devoid of human contact for up to 22 hours a day.

According to Mr. Allen:

This was a man [Ivan Cantu] who badly wanted to talk, who craves company more than almost anything else. 
He said that this encounter with a complete stranger was the most exciting thing that had happened to him in ages.

Mr. Cantu was convicted of capital murder back in 2001 and sentenced to die. Last year he was within a month of being strapped down to the gurney at the Walls Unit in Huntsville before his execution was stayed.

Now I'm not here to discuss the facts of Mr. Cantu's case. I don't know anything more that what I heard on the radio and read in the article. My concern has to do with the manner in which we treat inmates such as Mr. Cantu.

The majority of men and women on our nation's death rows are guilty of murder. I don't think there's much question about that statement. But even the most despicable inmate deserves to be treated with at least a modicum of respect.

He is an articulate man, but he said something I had never heard before: the longer he stays on death row, the harder he finds it to express himself. 
For all his voracious reading, the lack of regular conversation, he feels, is eroding his power to communicate.

As Mr. Allen points out, the walls of the Polunsky Unit are grey and brown, the uniforms white and the windows (actually more slit than window) are covered in dirt and grime. The inmates on death row are locked in their cells for 22 hours a day. They are all held in solitary confinement. They have access to reading materials, radios and typewriters but no computers or televisions. Their days are devoid of any meaningful communication with another person.

And just as murdering an inmate doesn't bring his victim back to life or cure the gaping wounds left behind by violent crime, locking someone in a cage with human contact for 22 hours a day does nothing to relieve anyone's pain or loss.

Treating a man like a caged animal does neither the inmate nor society any good. We can certainly do better.


Anonymous said...

I may have agreed with this article at one time. However, my mother was viciously bludgeoned to death with a 23 pound singer sewing machine. She sustained 8 crushing blows to the head after having been kicked so hard her liver was lacerated. All while bound in duct tape at the nose, mouth, wrists and ankles. This and more all by the hands of an animal. An animal who had committed this type of crime before and countless others. He deserves nothing less than the death penalty he received. I sincerely hope that you never suffer the loss of a dearly loved one in the manner my family has. If you had you may real differently.

Anonymous said...

i agree that we can do better than keeping them caged up—we can eliminate them right away. If I had to sit down and hang out with a death row inmate, I'd probably end up leaving with some kind of sympathetic feelings also. So don't. Why are they even still hanging around? They should be used for scientific & medical experimentation and then tossed into a crematorium.

Anonymous said...

"Treating a man like a caged animal does neither the inmate nor society any good."

Sure it prevents a man from ever doing this again inside or outside of prison.