A PRELIMINARY CASE STUDY ABOUT THE PSYCHOLOGICAL EFFECTS OF THE DEATH PENALTY
By Lyle C. May
Published in Bleakhouse's Tacenda Literary Magazine
As an investigative journalist, I conducted an informal survey of the prisoners in my living unit (Unit Three) on North Carolina’s congregate death row. This survey was conducted solely on my own initiative during the month of November 2021. This survey examines my peers’ direct lived experience on a congregate death row under a sentence of death; it is not abstract imaginings of some legal theory or policy. As such, the survey is important because it makes an argument of fact, not just law, that offers new evidence about life on a congregate death row to lend weight to understandings of life under sentence of death, which I contend is a violation of the Eight Amendment.
One should think of this survey as a kind an affidavit from me and my peers. For this reason, and because I wanted to give voice to the plight of my peers, I carried out the survey to the best of my abilities, promising anonymity to respondents and, further, promising that I would do my best to get the results of the survey published. As a matter of investigatory ethics, I did not record names or keep a list of names of respondents. Nor did I link names to observations. There is no way the identities of individual respondents can be determined by outsiders. I, myself, cannot identify names in relation to observations since I recorded information by topic, not under individual names.
Forty-three persons were surveyed. There were no refusals. Fully 41 of the 43 have been on North Carolina’s death row at least 20 years or more and were present when executions occurred with regularity. That is, they lived daily, for years on end, under a prison regime that regularly carried out executions of their neighbors. The general sense among my fellow prisoners was that this was a chance to express their views on a vitally important topic—the lived experience of death row in an active death penalty state—views that, sadly, are ignored by the prison and the larger society.
1. Do you take any prescribed psychotropic medications such as an SSRI (selective serotonin reuptake inhibitor), antidepressant, or antipsychotic?
For this question, some respondents required descriptions of the medication, the name of the medication, or how it made them feel to understand what they were being asked. 12 respondents acknowledged taking the anticonvulsant Teyretol, prescribed for an “off label” use as a psychiatric medication. 21 of 43respondents claimed to take some type of psychotropic medication and had not done so prior to incarceration.
2. Do you speak with a psychologist or psychiatrist?
21 of the 43 respondents claimed to have spoken with either a psychologist or a psychiatrist within a 30-day period.
3. Other than pretrial detainment, have you spent a year or more in disciplinary segregation?
18 of the 43 respondents claimed to have spent a year or more in solitary confinement while under a sentence of death. Of the seven who returned to solitary on multiple occasions, this was throughout the course of their confinement on death row. The 18 respondents were currently taking psych meds.
4. Do you currently experience any of the following: anxiety, panic attacks, fear of impending death, clinical depression, emotional flatness, apathy, lethargy, anger, rage, an inability to concentrate, memory lapses, paranoia, psychosis, suicidal ideation, schizophrenia, depersonalization, derealization, or hypersensitivity to light, sounds, or smells?
These symptoms were chosen because they have been listed as symptoms associated with death row “syndrome” and death row “phenomenon” by the European Court of Human Rights and other international courts. All respondents answered affirmatively to six or more of these symptoms.
5. On a scale of one to ten, with “1” representing low to none and “10” representing high to extreme, rate each of the previously listed symptoms.
All respondents measured moderate to extreme chronic depression, feelings of powerlessness, hopelessness, directionless anger, trouble concentrating, and hypersensitivity to light, sounds, and smells. Fewer experienced psychosis, schizophrenia, paranoia, and depersonalization/derealization, with only six respondents claiming a measure above “moderate” (5).
6. If you experience these symptoms and refuse treatment, can you explain why?
This question was the only one requiring a more involved answer. Not all respondents answered this question, but those who did gave four general answers for refusing treatment: 1) ineffective treatment; 2) the treatment would not alter the death sentence, which was the presumed cause of the symptoms; 3) the offer of medication was perceived as a “pacifier” or control mechanism that would make it easier for staff to manipulate the prisoner’s actions (this particular response was given by four prisoners who experienced heightened paranoia); 4) the psychological effects were part of the death sentence (this particular response was given by nine respondents and may be demonstrative of “catastrophic thinking,” an element of clinical depression).
7. Do you think your long-term confinement on death row is a form of psychological torture?
All respondents answered affirmatively, with four willing to drop their appeals if they could be executed immediately.
8. Have you ever been confined to the Mental Health Unit Six or been diagnosed with a severe mental illness such as bipolar disorder, dissociative identity disorder, major depression, or schizophrenia?
Two respondents claimed a diagnosis of schizophrenia, four respondents claimed a diagnosis of bipolar disorder, one respondent claimed a diagnosis of dissociative identity disorder, and one claimed to have been diagnosed with all of the above. It should be noted that I have witnessed these individuals in the social setting of North Carolina’s congregate death row. Each of these seven men has displayed symptoms related to their mental illnesses, each struggles to perform basic daily tasks such as eating and showering, and each is visibly dysfunctional in the social environment.