Offenders facing Death Penalty Essay

The offenders in prison have long been categorized into blacks and whites. They can also be categorized in terms of Hispanic and non-Hispanic. The Hispanic population consists of many races like Mexican, Cuban, Puerto Rican and others. Each of these groups is treated differently in the prison and this gives rise to racial discrimination. The offenders facing death penalty and counting their final days in prison are also discriminated on such racial basis and treated differently. Despite comprising around 12 percent of US population the blacks comprise more than 50 percent of those awaiting death penalty (Bobo & Johnson, 2004, p.152). The population consisting of blacks has been selected for this study.

Characteristics and challenges they face in prison

Since the time of slavery when the black people were considered as property, the injustice meted out to this category of the population has never lessened. Studies reveal that the blacks are more subject to death penalties than the whites. This bias stems from the fact that a majority of these decisions are made by the white. The blacks are 3.9 times more likely to face death penalty on committing crimes of similar magnitude as done by the whites. (Dieter, 1998)

The blacks facing death penalties suffer from mental trauma and helplessness during their stay in the prison. 5 to 10% of those facing death penalty suffer from grave mental illness. Severe mental trauma causes brain damage. This results in impairment of normal physical, behavioral and cognitive functions. These people often face physical and / or sexual abuse in the prison (Mental Illness on Death Row, n.d.)

How they adjust to incarceration

The prisons in the US- particularly in Texas and California are faced with overcrowding. This has negatively affected the living conditions in prison, prisoner’s safety and proper prison management. The welfare of the prisoners through the arrangement of useful rehabilitation programs has declined. Mental and physical wellbeing of the prisoners is not taken care of. The conflict between various groups in prison is resolved through cruel punitive measures. As a result, fear and tension among prisoners have increased.

The mental impacts of imprisonment include hyper vigilance, doubt and distrust among the prisoners. The prisoners are hyper vigilant about impending threats and danger. They fail to trust their fellow prisoners because of fear of getting victimized. This tendency is seen more in the Blacks, since they are the potential targets of victimization. A research in this regard reveals that about 40% prisoners avoid high risk areas in prison. Most of these prisoners spend additional time in their unit to avoid getting victimized. Almost 75% of prisoners act tough with others to avoid being exploited. Also, about 25% prisoners keep weapons with them to protect themselves. These behaviors on the part of the prisoners reflect the high degree of distrust among them. (Haney, 2002)

Social withdrawal and isolation is another method adopted by the prisoners in order to adjust to incarceration. It involves withdrawal from group activities in the prison. The prisoners do not interact with others in such situation. They adopt evasion tactic to cope with the situation. The state of withdrawal is associated with psychological depression. The attitude, behavior and perception of the Blacks facing death penalty can be studied by categorizing them into six categories. These are as follows:


This behavior is expressed in a consistent manner during the early days of trial. It is characterized by lack of concern for the things happening around. It is caused due to utter disbelief in the situation. (Radelet, 1990, p. 42)


After the indifference phase comes resignation. It is caused because of the feeling that waiting for death is more difficult than dying. The offenders facing death penalty seek their execution and do not want to undergo further trial.

The case of Rumbaugh in 1982 can be used to clarify this fact. He instructed his attorneys not to appeal his case further. He even intended to commit suicide. Once, during a court hearing, he threatened the marshal to shoot him. Though he was shot, he recovered and survived another two and a half years. But during this time, he was highly depressed and suffered from psychosis. (Radelet, 1990, p. 45) This case reveals that offenders facing long trial for their death sentence go through a state of rejection. To them, death is the desirable option in the absence of a possibility of release from prison.


This mental state of the offenders is characterized by severe crying. The prisoners request for their rescue to reliable persons in the prison. There is the sense of being lost or destroyed. (Radelet, 1990, p. 46)

Haannah, a young American Indian girl, underwent the feeling of indifference during the early part of her trial. As the execution grew imminent, her indifference gave way to fear. On the day of her execution, she was greatly afraid, wept bitterly and pleaded help from others. (Radelet, 1990, p. 46)


This mental state of the Black prisoners facing death sentence is characterized by boldness and normalcy in the face of death. In such mental state, the prisoners try to remain in jovial mood. They are not afraid of the imminent execution. They can play and share jokes with the authorities who are going to execute them. (Radelet, 1990, p. 48)

Edward Deacons, executed in 1888, was a bold and defiant person when he was put to death. He was cheerful during the times of his execution. He ridiculed others around him by calling them liars. He took pride in himself and considered him to be an innocent person. (Radelet, 1990, p. 48)

Charles Rambaugh, executed in 1985, was another boastful person. He spoke of his achievements to the fellow prisoners. He was desperate, and when he was first arrested, he spoke of going to the electric chair. It seemed as though he was proud of this fact. (Radelet, 1990, p. 49)


The offenders facing death penalty seek forgiveness from their friends and families and from surviving victims of their crimes. They accept their wrong doings and urge upon others to learn from their mistakes. They thank the jailor and other authorities around them for their kindness. This phase transforms a prisoner into a good human being. (Radelet, 1990, p. 49)

William Boston executed by the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania said before his execution: “I greatly desire all youth may take example by me, and have a care how they disobey their parents, which if I had done, I should not have been here this day, and brought to this untimely end”. (American Weekly Mercury, 1722, p. 2) This statement highlights the feeling of penitence underwent by the offender.

Religious conversion:

This is the final phase that is experienced by an offender facing death sentence. The failure to live a successful life makes them pray to Jusus- asking Him to embrace them in the life after death. (Radelet, 1990, p. 51) Studies have revealed that offenders facing death penalty undergo all the six stages during his / her stay in the prison. There is gradual transformation of their attitude from one category to the next. Religious conversion takes place just before the time of execution of the prisoners. This happens because the prisoners seek forgiveness from Jesus for their wrongdoing and hope to see Him post death.

Special services provided for this population in prison:

The role of prison is to correct the behavior of prisoners. But this duty of the prison is being severely undermined in US. Racial discrimination is present between the Blacks and the Whites. (Gabbidon & Greene, 2011, pp. 367-368) The Blacks are subjected to abusive behavior and are held responsible for any problem in the prison. Mental rehabilitation which is a severe need of offenders facing death penalty is ignored to these people. Instead, they face physical and sexual abuse. They live in adverse living conditions. (Haney, 2002)

A Texas police officer once said to two criminals convicted of murder of a white high school girl: “One of you two is gonna hang for this. Since you're the nigger, you're elected.” This statement shows the extent of hatred for the Blacks in the American society. (Dieter, 1998) The Philadelphia study showed that the average rate of death sentence in Philadelphia was 0.18 for the Black defendants and 0.13 for the White defendants. This indicated 38% higher rates of death sentence for the Blacks. (Dieter, 1998)

Public reaction

Debates centering on death penalty have been going on since years and public opinion seems to be divided on this. Public opinion polls show that conservatives support death penalty compared to liberals ho normally believe that certain factors beyond the control of human beings influence the offenders and hence these offenses can be corrected instead of pushing them towards death penalty (Nice, 1992, p. 1037). Some experts observe that death penalty can bring about racial politics. for instance, it has been observed that “Whites from all classes successfully demand enhanced criminal punishments in areas with the largest minority populations” (Bobo & Johnson, 2004, p.152) opinions on the criminal justice system can also be differentiated between the whites and the blacks who react in different ways. Whites normally support death penalty more than the blacks (Bobo & Johnson, 2004, p.155).


The offenders facing death penalty can be categorized into different groups based on race and color of skin. Of these groups, the condition of the Blacks facing death penalty is the most horrible. They undergo severe abuse and mental shock in prison. They experience six categories of mental condition- indifference, resignation, fear, defiance, penitence and religious conversion during their stay in prison. But the purpose of imprisonment (that of correcting behavior instead of punishing) is heavily undermined as the prisoner goes through such feelings and finally faces death. It remains to be seen whether the situation changes in the future and whether the Blacks receive what they duly deserve.


Bobo, L. D. & D. Johnson (2004) A Taste for Punishment, Du Bois Review, 1(1), 151-180, retrieved on June 26, 2011 from:

Dieter, R. C. (1998), The Death Penalty in Black and White: Who Lives, Who Dies, Who Decides, Death Penalty Information Center, retrieved on June 23, 2011 from:

Gabbidon, S. L. & H. T. Greene (2011), Race and Crime, New Delhi: SAGE

Haney, C. (2002), The Psychological Impact of Incarceration: Implications for post-prison adjustment, University of California-Santa Cruz, 77-89

Mental Illness on Death Row, Death Penalty Focus, Retrieved on June 23, 2011 from:

Nice, D.C. (1992). The States and the Death Penalty, The Western Political Quarterly 45 (4), 1037-1048.

Radelet, M.L. (1990), Facing the Death Penalty, Philadelphia: Temple University Press

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