Surprising Facts About Death Row


Since the death penalty is still legal in 29 states, thousands of prisoners across the United States are awaiting execution. While the majority of them have committed one or more murders, many people believe that the death penalty is eye-for-an-eye in regards to justice for the victim’s family. Others, however, feel like it’s inhumane regardless of the crimes the inmates have committed.

Since the death penalty was first introduced, there have been five forms of execution: firing squad, hanging, lethal gas, electrocution, and lethal injection. While lethal injection is considered to be the most humane form of execution, complications can still arise.

So, what would it be like living on death row, knowing that one day you’ll be executed? Your living conditions aren’t as ideal as one might think – you often lack basic necessities that most of us take for granted. Constantly thinking about your execution date, complete isolation, and several other factors can really mess with your minds, especially if you have been wrongfully convicted. Let’s take a look at 10 facts about death row that may surprise you. 

10. The Death Penalty Timeline

A lot has happened in regards to the death penalty in the last several hundred years. (Here is a summary of the death penalty timeline.) In 1834, Pennsylvania became the first US state to end public executions. Twelve years later, Michigan became the first state to get rid of the death penalty for all crimes except for treason. In 1890, William Kemmler became the first prisoner to be executed by the electric chair in New York. Cyanide gas was introduced as a method for execution in 1924. In 1977, Oklahoma became the first state to use lethal injection for executions, and in 1982 Charles Brooks was the first person to be executed in that manner.

Velma Barfield from North Carolina became the first woman executed since the reinstatement of the death penalty in 1976. Billy Bailey of Delaware was the last person to be executed by hanging in 1996. In 2009, Ohio became the first state to switch to a single drug instead of the three-drug method that was used for lethal injection. In 2014, Tennessee became the first state to make the electric chair a mandatory means of death when lethal injection drugs aren’t available. Utah Governor Gary Herbert signed legislation in 2015 so that a firing squad could be used to kill an inmate on death row if the lethal injection drugs aren’t available. 

9. Exceptionally Long Wait Time On Death Row

Time definitely doesn’t pass by quickly while sitting on death row, and the wait time gets a lot longer as the years go by. Back in 1984, a prisoner’s average wait time from arriving on death row until the execution was 6 years and 2 months. More recently, in 2013, the average wait time jumped up significantly to 15 and a half years, and it keeps climbing. The longest-serving inmate on death row had been Jack Alderman. After spending over 33 years on death row, he was executed in Georgia in 2008.

It’s not surprising that several death row inmates have passed away from natural causes before their execution date even arrived. One example is Gary Alvord, who was the longest ever serving death row inmate in the United States. He passed away in 2013 at 66 years of age from a brain tumor after spending nearly 40 years on death row in Florida. The oldest prisoner on death row was Leroy Nash, who passed away from natural causes in Arizona in 2010 at 94 years of age. 

8. High Execution Rate

The United States has the 7th highest execution rate in the entire world, behind China, Iran, Saudi Arabia, Iraq, Pakistan, and Egypt. Since 1976, around 1,500 people have been executed just in the United States. 

As for the United States, Texas has executed the most prisoners. In 2018, the 13 men that the state executed was over half of the total executions in the entire country (25). Last year, Texas had almost double the amount of executions compared to the previous two years, as 7 men were executed in both 2016 and 2017. And there are still more than 220 people living on death row just in that state. Since 1976, more than 550 prisoners have been executed — a lot more than the state of Virginia, which has the second-highest number of executions with 113. In fact, in the last 20 years, only twice did Texas not hold the number one spot for the most executions. 

7. The Death Penalty Is Not The Cheaper Way To Go

Contrary to popular belief, it is not cheaper to put an inmate to death rather than keeping him alive in prison for the rest of his life. Death penalty cases are much more expensive than non-death penalty cases – around 70% more expensive in Kansas, approximately 48% more expensive in Tennessee, three times more expensive in Maryland (around $3 million for one death penalty case), and it costs California approximately $137 million a year compared to $11.5 million without the death penalty. (Important note: these numbers were estimated a few years ago and could have changed since then.)

The most expensive part of a death penalty case is the time before and during the trial. A lot of the costs come from the large amount of work and investigations conducted, especially by the prosecution. Even if there were no post-conviction appeals, it would still be more expensive than non-death penalty cases. 

6. Many Inmates Suffer From “Death Row Phenomenon”

Many inmates who are living on death row suffer from a condition called “death row phenomenon.” With the harsh conditions on death row, in addition to the constant thoughts that eventually they will be executed, it’s enough to take a huge mental toll on the prisoners. They can even suffer from PTSD, extreme fear, and rage.

Being on death row for years and even decades can impact their mental and physical health, as they are usually confined to their small cells for up to 23 hours a day, all alone. They are not allowed to participate in educational and employment programs offered at the jail, and they have restrictions when it comes to family visiting.

The thought of knowing that they will someday be executed, but uncertain of when it will happen, is hard on the prisoners’ mental state and they sometimes can’t handle it, so they attempt suicide. In fact, many inmates have tried committing suicide in the days and weeks leading up to their executions. Having to suffer through the long legal process, knowing that they will eventually get executed, wondering how long it will take them to die after the drug is administered to them, and if they will have a painful death… having 23 hours a day, 7 days a week to think about that stuff is enough to make anyone suffer mentally. 

5. Lack Of Basic Necessities

In addition to suffering from “death row phenomenon,” many inmates on death row also lack the basic necessities needed to keep them mentally and physically healthy. Although living on death row isn’t supposed to be luxurious, often times they are lacking very basic needs. Prisoners normally only get to leave their cells for one hour each day (and four hours each week for exercise) and the rest of the time they’re isolated in their small living space that has a bed, toilet, sink, and sometimes a desk and chair crammed in there.

Having to live in that tiny space for decades is enough to make anyone feel claustrophobic. Additionally, they sometimes only get to shower once every two days. They sleep on steel beds, have no hot water, they’re served bad and innutritious foods, they have no climate control when it’s hot in the summer and cold in the winter, and they’re often refused religious services. 

4. Death Row Is Not Just For Adult Men

When we think of death row prisoners, we commonly imagine them being all men. That is not always the case. Women can commit just as heinous and vicious crimes as men. As of April 1, 2019, there are 54 women living on death row. And since the death penalty was reinstated in 1976, a total of 16 women have been executed.

Juveniles have also been on death row – 22 of them were executed between 1976 and 2005 for crimes that they committed while they were underage. However, in 2005, the Supreme Court ruled that it was unconstitutional to execute juvenile offenders (Roper v. Simmons), meaning that offenders who are under the age of 18 are exempt from receiving the death penalty. The science surrounding juveniles’ brain development in their younger years also contributed to the decision made by the Court. 

3. Innocent People On Death Row

While we often hear inmates claim their innocence, a surprising number of innocent people have been sent to death row. But with new DNA testing, as well as weak cases resulting in acquittals at retrial, and dropped charges, some inmates who were waiting to be executed have gone free. In fact, new DNA evidence has benefited more than 20 death row inmates who have been exonerated in the United States since 1992.

It has been estimated that approximately 4.1% of all death row prisoners are in fact innocent, but unfortunately for them, over half of them will get executed before they will get the chance of being exonerated. Since 1973, around 200 innocent people have been executed which averages out to 4.5 deaths per year of innocent prisoners. On the other hand, since 1973, a total of 165 prisoners have been exonerated while waiting on death row – 29 of them were just in the state of Florida. 

2. Executions Can Go Wrong

In order to make executions more humane, the process of lethal injection became the method in which the prisoners on death row would eventually die. Unfortunately for some of them, the execution process isn’t always simple and sometimes things can go very wrong. One primary example happened in 2014 when Arizona inmate Joseph Wood received a total of 15 injections during a nearly two-hour time period before he eventually passed away. Not surprisingly, he is said to have suffered throughout the entire time, gulping and gasping for air.

Earlier that same year, Ohio prisoner Dennis McGuire was administered a new combination of drugs which resulted in the process taking a total of 24 minutes before he died. And during at least 10 of those minutes, he appeared to have been gasping for air.

Another example also occurred in 2014 when it took Oklahoma prisoner Clayton Lockett 43 minutes to die after being injected with the lethal drugs. Apparently the IV hadn’t been placed properly in his arm, lengthening the process of death. In those 43 minutes, he was said to have thrashed and squirmed around on the gurney in addition to groaning in pain.

1. The Death Penalty Does Not Keep The Public Safer

It would make sense to think that a state having the death penalty would deter people from committing murders, but actually the opposite is true. In fact, states that do not have the death penalty have much lower murder rates than those that have it.

Between the years 2000 and 2016, there has been an annual average of 33% more murders committed in death penalty states compared to those without it. According to the chart (which can be seen here), there have been significantly more murders in death penalty states since 1990. And in several of those states without the death penalty, the yearly homicide rates are often below the national average. It seems as though receiving the ultimate punishment of death for committing unspeakable crimes hasn’t discouraged many of the hard-core criminals in those states.

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