The Psychological Trauma of Death Row

On the evening of February 19, 2013, Warren Hill, a Georgia inmate said his final goodbyes and prepared to die by lethal injection.  Just 30 minutes before the time he was scheduled to be executed, after he had already taken an oral sedative to prepare for the gurney, Hill learned of a stay on his execution issued by the 11th circuit federal appeals court.  This was not the first time Hill had been forced to face his death, only to be temporarily saved within hours prior. In July, he received a stay on his execution just 90 minutes before the scheduled injection.

This time, Hill’s stay was issued on account of new questions surrounding his intellectual disability and the testimonies of his psychiatric examiners.

While Hill’s case raises many questions about intellectual disabilities and the justice system, it also illuminates the psychological trauma perpetuated by death penalty systems.  It is no secret that our bodies bear the marks of psychological trauma in many ways.  We now know the many ways in which bodies and minds bear the marks of trauma long after the event itself (Robyn Fivush, et. al).  However, in public dialogue, death row inmates are an exception, as few people attempt to understand them as victims of a certain type of trauma themselves.  For many, the fact that death row inmates are destined for execution precludes any attempt to understand and provide therapy for the psychological trauma caused by death row procedures, particularly in terms of appeal and stay processes.

In a 2004 study issued by Cornell, researchers found that 1 in 8 of individuals executed under the death penalty in the modern era voluntarily waved the appeals process and faced their executions.  Human rights advocacy groups, such as the Southern Center for Human Rights and Amnesty US point out that many inmates would rather voluntarily choose to face their death rather than prolong the anxiety of the stay process by way of an appeal. Some even liken Hill’s recent stay, as well as those in other death penalty cases, as akin to psychological torture. While, for death penalty activists, stays can be a minor victory in that they prolong the inmate’s life, they can also serve as the one of the most psychologically damaging experiences that an inmate can suffer. However, very little research and exploration has been done in this area, as death row inmates are typically cast as “unrecoverable”. In the rare case that an inmate receives a stay and is proven innocent, psychologists such as Stuart Grassian point out that the effects of the trauma are nearly irreversible.

How might psychologists work therapeutically with death row inmates, who face the psychological trauma of execution every day? How might such approaches appropriate practices such as narrative therapy, virtual memory, and support groups? Moreover, would such practices be helpful in a context where the prospect for recovery seems so bleak? In fact, psychologists across the nation are beginning to discover the positive, (re)humanizing effects of group counseling therapy with condemned inmates.

Perhaps the most important question in all of this still stands: Are death row inmates valuable enough as human beings for their psychological trauma to be taken seriously?

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