Georgia’s Response to Death Row Suicides: Restrict Family Visits
Three convicted killers on Georgia’s death row died recently in the span of three months–but none of them was executed. In October of 2009, Kim McMichen died of pneumonia. In November, Timothy Pruitt died from what was reported to be a botched suicide attempt. And on New Year’s Day 2010, Leeland Mark Braley was found hanged in his cell.
Living for years or decades in solitary confinement under threat of execution, it’s hardly surprising that men on death row become suicidal. Several recent cases in which condemned inmates elected to waive their right to appeal–or even requested speedy executions–have been viewed by some as legal suicides, and attributed to the psychological effects of life on death row. According to the Death Penalty Information Center:
Psychologists and lawyers in the United States and elsewhere have argued that protracted periods in the confines of death row can make inmates suicidal, delusional and insane. Some have referred to the living conditions on death row–the bleak isolation and years of uncertainty as to time of execution–as the “death row phenomenon,” and the psychological effects that can result as “death row syndrome.”
What’s less fathomable is the Georgia Department of Corrections’ GDOC) chosen response to the suicides. According to an article by Charles Stanley in The Sunday Paper, an Atlanta weekly, “Since Braley’s death, new restrictions, meant to enhance security within the prison, have been placed on inmates’ privileges including the revocation of contact visits with family and loved ones for all prisoners.” Advocates for prisoners and their families are arguing that new restrictions go “beyond the limits of humane punishment or reasonable security measures.”
While some may point out that these were “dead men walking” anyway, advocates—and inmates whose guilt is in question—counter that for people already confined to their cells for as many as 23 hours a day, the new restrictions that went into effect after Braley’s death represent what Pastor Randy Loney calls “another kind of death.”
GDOC’s new rules cap the number of non-family visitors allowed on each inmate’s visitation list at two. Furthermore, inmates and their visitors are now separated by a barrier of wire mesh and bars, impairing visual contact and preventing physical contact.
Loney…has been ministering to death row inmates for 25 years. He says visits from family and loved ones are a lifeline for most death row inmates, and to take that away from them is devastating….
Loney says he has seen a noticeable change in demeanor amongst the prisoners he regularly visits.
“Their families are their lifelines,” he says, “and when they can’t hug their mothers and fathers and children and brothers and sisters, they’re heartbroken … it’s palpable.”
It seems that one of the motivations behind the new security measures is the idea that visitors might smuggle in contraband that would assist inmates in taking their own lives–a task the state wishes to reserve for itself. To reduce the risk of suicide, Georgia has placed additional restrictions on the one thing that might keep death row prisoners from wanting to commit suicide.
Although the contact visits were eliminated immediately after the inmate deaths, a spokesperson for the GDOC said the two things were unrelated.
The Sunday Paper asked Pastor Loney “whether men convicted of humanity’s most heinous crimes are likely to illicit sympathy from the public.” He replied, “I think everyone agrees that there is a tremendous difference between punishment and dehumanization,” he says. “To deprive people of human contact is far beyond punishment. It becomes dehumanizing.”
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In the polite language of the John Howard Association:
Through a year or more of sensory and psychological deprivation, prisoners are stripped of their individual identities in order that compliant behavior patterns can be implanted, a process of mortification and depersonalization.
The techniques involved have been described by Amnesty International are laid out in Biderman’s “Chart on Penal Coersion”. As early as 1962, Dr. Edgar Schein described the methodology at issue rather more straightforwardly in an address to all federal maximum security prison wardens in Washington, D.C.:
In order to produce marked changes in behavior, it is necessary to weaken, undermine, or remove supports for old attitudes. I would like you to think of brainwashing not in terms of… ethics and morals, but in terms of the deliberate changing of human behavior by a group of men who have relatively complete control over the environment in which the captives live… [These changes can be induced by] isolation, sensory deprivation, segregation of leaders, spying, tricking men into signing written statements which are then shown to others, placing individuals whose will power has been severely weakened into a living situation with others more advanced in thought reform, character invalidation, humiliations, sleeplessness, rewarding subservience, and fear [emphasis added].
In Dr. Richard Kom’s estimation, the purpose of an SHU-style facility is to:
… reduce prisoners to a state of submission essential for their ideological conversion. That failing, the next objective is to reduce them to a state of psychological incompetence sufficient to neutralize them as efficient, self-directing antagonists. That failing, the only alternative is to destroy them, preferably by making them desperate enough to destroy themselves.
The following is a poem from one such inmate.
After years of isolation, depression and
hopelessness, he decided-as simply as
turning down the blanket
on his bunk for the night-to take his
own life, so they could no longer inflict a pain that robbed him of
his identity, stripped him of his dignity,
destroyed his mind, and left him