Death row conditions in many countries fall far short of international norms prohibiting cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment. Conditions range widely, from the sterile, solitary confinement that pervades death row in many states in the United States, to the unsanitary and overcrowded prisons in some parts of the Caribbean and Sub-Saharan Africa. Solitary confinement leads many prisoners to develop debilitating mental illnesses, and overcrowding, combined with poor nutrition and hygiene, threatens their health and in some cases can lead to premature death.
Although most of the information we’ve gathered pertains to prison conditions generally (as opposed to death row in particular), death row inmates are usually exposed to the same environment as the general prison population—and conditions are often worse. The following summary therefore draws from information we’ve gathered relating to general prison conditions in the ninety-three retentionist and de facto abolitionist countries that were surveyed. The most prevalent problems include overcrowding, understaffed prisons, inadequate medical care, torture, inmate-on-inmate violence, and custodial deaths. Lack of adequate food and water, unsanitary conditions, and adequate housing are also serious problems that affect the entire prion population. With regard to death row in particular, we discuss the extreme isolation death row inmates often endure, the denial of privileges accorded the rest of the prison population, and other inhumane treatment such as shackling.
Harsh and life threatening, abysmal, dangerous, and degrading are just some of the ways in which prison conditions have been described in retentionist countries around the world. The most commonly cited problem is overcrowding. In most countries (including Bangladesh, Benin, Ghana, Guatemala, Jamaica, Lebanon, Morocco, Nigeria, South Sudan, Tanzania, Trinidad and Tobago, Tunisia, Uganda, United States of America, and Zambia), overcrowding is a major issue in prisons housing death row inmates. Prison Services officials reported that in one prison in Ghana 104 death row inmates were held in a cell designed to hold only 24 inmates. In Nigeria, a cellblock built to house 6 inmates has been used to hold as many as 18-24 death row inmates. In Zambia’s Mukobeko Prison, which was built to house 400 inmates, there were 1,678 prisoners in 2007, 296 of whom were on death row. Overcrowding is so severe in Eritrea’s prisons that some prisoners are reportedly held in shipping containers, underground bunkers, and other similar places with limited light or ventilation. In Bangladesh, prisoners must sleep in shifts due to the severity of overcrowding. Reports indicate that prisons are at 135.7% capacity in India. Overcrowding in prisons in the Democratic Republic of Congo has led to a high number of custodial deaths. While the governments of Lesotho and Russia have made efforts to alleviate overcrowding by building more prisons, granting pardons and promoting alternative punishment for lesser crimes, efforts to reduce overcrowding in other countries have been impeded by the lack of financial resources.
In many countries, prolonged pretrial detention contributes to the problem of overcrowding. In Benin’s Akpro-Missérété prison, where death row inmates are held, the high number of pre-trial detainees contributes significantly to overcrowding and many of these pre-trial detainees must endure the same degrading conditions as convicted prisoners. Similarly, in Chad, Democratic Republic of Congo, Dominica, Equatorial Guinea, Liberia, Maldives, Sri Lanka, and Yemen, pre-trial detainees are held with convicted prisoners, worsening the already pressing problem of overcrowding. This issue also affects the prison systems in Cameroon, Republic of Guinea, Liberia, Sri Lanka, and Tanzania.
To make matters worse, many overcrowded prisons are also understaffed. This is an issue that particularly affects death row inmates in Guatemala, Nigeria, and Uganda. Despite the prevalence of gang activity, some death row inmates in Guatemala living in inadequately staffed wards are assigned significant administrative tasks. In Nigeria, prison guards once failed to show up to work because of pay disputes, leading to a mass jailbreak. Understaffing is also a problem in Cameroon, Guinea, Jamaica, Kuwait, Liberia, Papua New Guinea, Saint Kitts and Nevis, Saint Vincent and the Grenadines.
Lack of medical care is also a major problem in almost all countries that retain the death penalty. For instance, prisoners in Burkina Faso, Jamaica, and Kuwait do not have access to medical care because of staff shortages. In Jamaica’s prisons, medical care is virtually non-existent, with only three doctors, one psychiatrist and a single full-time nurse servicing approximately 5,000 inmates spread throughout 12 facilities. Consequently, inmates have died as a result of minor injuries. As of 2005, death row inmates in Guatemala failed to receive medical, psychological or psychiatric treatment, and were sometimes isolated in cages. In Uganda’s Jinja Prison, where death row inmates are housed and doctors visit only twice a month, reports indicate that when death row inmates fall sick the prison’s medical team is hesitant to treat them since they have been sentenced to die anyway. The lack of medical care leaves prisoners in Ghana dependent on family or outside organizations for assistance.
The lack of medicine makes infection or illness life-threatening for prisoners in several regions such as Guinea, where prisoners infected with tuberculosis are held together with uninfected prisoners. In the Democratic Republic of Congo and Kenya, the lack of medical care has led to a high number of deaths.
Lesotho seems to be the only country that is recognized for providing its prisoners with free medical care at government hospitals with nurses working onsite. This is a far cry from the conditions in Eritrea, Nigeria, and Tunisia, where prisoners reportedly are intentionally denied medical care, leading to serious health problems and to what some prisoners in Eritrea refer to as psychological torture.
The lack of medical care is acutely felt by mentally ill prisoners. Amnesty International reported in 2008 that in Thailand and Mauritania, , those suffering from dementia and mental disorders were left to wander around the cells with no medical care. In Pakistan, where mentally ill prisoners are often kept together in one cell and where forty mentally ill prisoners were once chained to a wall in a Punjab prison, incompetent prison doctors and uninterested state employees subject prisoners to substandard medical care.
Physical torture has been reported or confirmed in many countries (including Algeria, Bahamas, Bahrain, Bangladesh, Burkina Faso, Cameroon, Central African Republic, China, China, Cuba, Democratic Republic of Congo, Equatorial Guinea, Egypt, Eritrea, Guinea, Guyana, Indonesia, Iran, Iraq, Jamaica, Jordan, Kenya, Kuwait, Laos, Malaysia, Mauritania, Morocco, Myanmar or Burma, Nigeria, Papua New Guinea, Qatar, Nigeria, Pakistan, Russia, Saint Vincent and Grenadines, Saudi Arabia, Somalia, Sudan, Swaziland, Syria, Tanzania, Thailand, Trinidad and Tobago, Tunisia, Uganda, and Yemen). Torture on death row has been reported in Saint Lucia, Morocco, and Guinea. Custodial rape has been reported in Iran, including rape prior to execution for female inmates. Confessions are reportedly procured by torture in many countries, including Iraq, China, and the Democratic Republic of Congo. Prisoners subjected to torture in Uganda have died from their injuries: in 2009 there were 141 prisoner deaths nationwide partly due to mistreatment.
Corruption of prison personnel is another widespread problem. In Bahrain and Cameroon, reports indicate that abuse helps fuel corruption within the prison system. In Guinea, prison guards reportedly regularly exploit and harass girls under the age of 18 by demanding sexual favors in exchange for additional food and water. Similarly, in countries like Benin, Chad, Democratic Republic of Congo, Guatemala, Guinea, Indonesia, Jamaica, Japan, Kenya, Myanmar or Burma, Nigeria, Pakistan, Saint Vincent and Grenadines, prisoners are subjected to many other forms of degrading treatment by prisons guards and are often forced to pay bribes for food.
In some cases, guards are not the only ones inflicting violence on prisoners. Inmate-on-inmate violence is a problem in countries such as the Democratic Republic of Congo, Equatorial Guinea, Guatemala, Guinea, Jamaica, Kenya, Kuwait, Morocco, Papua New Guinea, Pakistan, Saint Vincent and the Grenadines, Swaziland, and Trinidad and Tobago. In Kenya, a parliamentary committee report attributed the bouts of prison violence to excessive idleness among the death row population (in many countries, prisoners on death row are deprived of access to work and educational programs). In Jamaica, prisoners often target mentally challenged prisoners. Abuse inflicted on juveniles and women is particularly prevalent, partly because women and juveniles are sometimes held alongside adult male offenders. Countries which fail to separate juveniles from adults include Antigua and Barbuda, Cameroon, Chad, Democratic Republic of Congo, Dominica, Equatorial Guinea, Egypt, Iran, Kenya, Laos, Lebanon, Papua New Guinea, Russia, Sri Lanka, Syria, and Yemen. Men and women are usually housed separately, but in Bangladesh, Cameroon, Democratic Republic of Congo, Equatorial Guinea, Gambia, and Iraq, organizations have reported that women and men are often not separated, leaving female prisoners susceptible to sexual assault. Where male and female prisoners are separated, such as in Antigua and Barbuda, Bahamas, Malawi and Morocco, conditions in the women’s facilities are often significantly better than in the men’s section of the prison.
In addition to the deplorable conditions detailed above, prisoners often lack essential necessities, such as food and water, sanitary living conditions, hygienic necessities such as soap and laundry detergent, and proper facilities in which to live. Inadequate food and water is a problem in many countries. Malnutrition is particularly common in countries that only provide prisoners with one meal per day. For instance, in Malawi’s Zomba prison, where death row prisoners are held, prisoners are typically given one meal a day and often split their lunch into two portions to reserve food for dinner. Food shortages are also common in Zomba and on death row in Benin and Zimbabwe. In Myanmar’s prisons, the deprivation of food and water is used as a form of punishment. Prisoners have reportedly died from malnutrition in the Democratic Republic of Congo, Zambia, and North Korea.
Prisoners must also endure unsanitary conditions and dilapidated buildings. Deteriorating structures not built to house prisoners or the number housed, with leaking roofs and inadequate bathroom and sewage systems, deficient electricity, poor ventilation, and a lack of lighting, are just some of the issues that characterize the poor facilities in which prisoners, including death row inmates, must live. Poor ventilation and the lack of toilets are likely the most prevalent of these issues. For instance, in Zambia, a recently exonerated man stated that the death row prison had no ventilation and inadequate toilets forcing prisoners to improvise using plastic containers. In Jamaica’s Gibraltar prison, where death row inmates are held, the sewage system often breaks down, causing sewage water to overflow into the small area where prisoners exercise. In Nigeria, the lack of potable water, inadequate sewage facilities, and severe overcrowding reportedly resulted in dangerous and unsanitary conditions.
Together with overcrowding, unsanitary conditions have led to the spread of infectious disease such as tuberculosis and HIV/AIDS in Zimbabwe’s prisons and other prisons around the world, including those housing death row inmates. Countries reported to have poor sanitation or unhygienic prison conditions include Algeria, Antigua and Barbuda, Bangladesh, Benin, Botswana, Burkina Faso, Cameroon, Chad, Comoros, Cuba, Dominica, Equatorial Guinea, Guinea, Guyana, Indonesia, Iraq, Jamaica, Jordon, Kenya, Kuwait, Lebanon, Lesotho, Liberia, Malaysia, Mauritania, Morocco, Nigeria, North Korea, Saint Vincent and Grenadines, Sierra Leone, South Sudan, Sri Lanka, Sudan, Syria, Tajikistan, Tanzania, Thailand, Trinidad and Tobago, Tunisia, Uganda, United States of America, Yemen, Zambia, and Zimbabwe. Moreover, the lack of bathing necessities such as soap, bathing water, shampoo, toothpaste, or toilet paper is a problem in prisons in countries such as Guinea, Liberia, and Thailand.
Coupled with inadequate or non-existent medical care, the spread of diseases due to unsanitary conditions has led to a high number of custodial deaths in some countries. In 2008, 108 prisoners in Ghana died while in custody, mostly due to diseases contracted or left untreated while in prison. Inadequate conditions, along with malnutrition, beatings, and torture, likely contributed to a high number of custodial prison deaths in other countries like Bangladesh, Cameroon, Central African Republic, Chad, China, Democratic Republic of Congo, Eritrea, Gambia, Ghana, Republic of Guinea, Guyana, India, Jamaica, Kenya, Morocco, Myanmar or Burma, Nigeria, North Korea, Papua New Guinea, Saudi Arabia, Sudan, Uganda, and Zimbabwe. One cause of death that is especially problematic among death row prisoners is suicide. Harsh death row conditions have led death-sentenced individuals to commit suicide in countries like Zimbabwe and Morocco.
Extreme isolation, shackling, and the lack of privileges that may be enjoyed by other prisoners creates unbearable living conditions on death row. For instance, death row prisoners in Dominica, Ethiopia, Guatemala, Guyana, Japan, Jordon, Kenya, Lebanon, Malaysia, Pakistan, Singapore, South Korea, Tunisia, United States of America, and Zimbabwe are kept in solitary confinement, enduring extreme isolation where they are unable to leave their cells for prolonged periods. The U.N. Human Rights Committee and the Special Rapporteur on Torture have stated that prolonged solitary confinement may amount to a form of torture or cruel, inhumane or degrading punishment. In some instances, death row prisoners are not only denied or limited access to the outside world but are also denied any communication with loved ones. The rights to correspond and visit with loved ones and others are privileges that are frequently denied to death-sentenced individuals in Belarus, Dominica, Iran, Kenya, Lebanon, Malawi, Pakistan, Singapore, South Sudan, Tunisia, and the United States of America.
In some countries, however, death row inmates are permitted to communicate and visit with loved ones. Moreover, in some countries, they may participate in selected activities, such as recreation or educational programs. Death row inmates in countries like Burkina Faso, Grenada, Guatemala, Guyana, Jamaica, Japan, Morocco, Pakistan, Singapore, South Korea, Taiwan, Thailand, Vietnam, and Zambia may enjoy some of these privileges, but they are often subject to stringent limitations. For instance, in Jamaica, the U.N Special Rapporteur reports that death row inmates are allowed visits but they only last 2-3 minutes. Additionally, Jamaica’s death row inmates are allowed to go outside for two hours but are unable to communicate or mingle with the general prison population. On the other hand, very unlike most prison systems, death row inmates in Burkina Faso benefit from the exemption of labor, the ability to smoke, and the freedom to read without restriction.
In addition to prolonged solitary confinement, death row prisoners are often kept in cages, confined to dark rooms, kept next to the gallows where they can hear executions, and in some cases not notified of their execution date, which causes extreme psychological anguish. Death row inmates in Barbados, Belarus, Benin, Japan, Nigeria, Saint Kitts and Nevis, Uganda, and Zimbabwe endure such conditions. Moreover, in violation of international standards, reports indicate that death row inmates in China, Saint Lucia, South Sudan, Taiwan, Thailand, and Vietnam are often shackled to the wall for their entire detention or for prolonged periods of time.
For the most part, however, death row inmates must endure cruel and inhumane treatment unique to their situation. In virtually all countries, death row prisoners experience the psychological torment of anticipating their own death (for more information on what has been called “death row phenomenon” or “death row syndrome,” please refer to our separate summary of that issue).
Last updated on September 4, 2012