A worldwide perspective: how long should prisoners be held on death row before they are executed?

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Manuel Valle was sentenced to death, aged 27, on the 10th of May 1978 for murdering a police officer earlier that year. He is now aged 61 and still on death row in Florida awaiting execution after 33 years. He has been tried and sentenced to death three times, as his first two trials were found to have been unconstitutional.

According to the Florida Department of Corrections website, Florida’s death row cells are strictly solitary and are only 6 x 9 x 9.5 feet high. The prisoners are confined to their cells at all times except during the one hour a day they are allowed to spend in the exercise yard, once every two days when they can shower, or on the rare occasions they receive a visit. There is no prisoner-to-prisoner contact at all, and the guards are told not to talk to death row prisoners, to avoid prison guards humanising or fraternising with someone who they will eventually have to take to the execution gurney. The ‘exercise yard’ is extremely limited; an article in the New York Times in 2002 revealed that there is no gym equipment, and one prisoner described himself as ‘feeling like a lab rat walking around in a circle’. Mike Lambrix, who has been on Florida’s death row for 25 years, writes that ‘in my personal experience I can tell you that the conditions we must “live” under far exceed any objective definition of “cruel and unusual” punishment’.

Outside the USA, death row conditions are equally deplorable. In Kampala prison in Uganda,  for example, the death row that was built to hold 15 prisoners now holds 380. As many as 8 people can be crammed into these originally one-man cells. There is no toilet and it is very common for prisoners to die in their cells of diseases like tuberculosis and scabies.

Another problem in many countries around the world is the time prisoners have to spend in prison on capital charges before they are even tried and found to be guilty – or innocent. For example, Naheem Hussain and Rehan Zaman have been in prison in Pakistan awaiting trial on capital charges for seven years now, despite compelling evidence of their innocence. Similarly, Muhammad Hanif spent four years in a Pakistani prison awaiting trial for a crime he did not commit, before finally being acquitted.

The American Constitution’s 8th Amendment prohibits ‘cruel and unusual punishment’, however the United States Supreme Court OpenDocument has said that keeping someone on death row for a particularly long period of time (such as 33 years in Manuel Valle’s case) does not generally qualify as cruel or unusual. This is surprising, given the conditions on American death rows – and it is the opposite conclusion of that reached by the European Court of Human Rights, which concluded in 1989 that conditions on death row in the US state of Virginia violated the European Convention provision prohibiting torture and cruel, inhuman and degrading treatment.

Other jurisdictions around the world have, likewise, concluded that death row prisoners should not be punished twice, by being held on death row for extensive periods of time before they are executed. For instance, a Caribbean case found that, after five years on death row, a prisoner’s sentence should be commuted to life imprisonment. Likewise, the Islamic court of Pakistan stated that:

“From the time the trial court awards the sentence of death, at the end of an agonizing and protracted trial, up to the acceptance or rejection of his mercy petition by the President of Pakistan after dismissal of his appeal…, he has to pass through a distressing period of time awaiting confirmation of death sentence … The conditions in which a condemned prisoner spends a trying period extending over a few years are simply deplorable, inhuman and unpardonable. It may be legally justified for the State to detain prisoners pending execution of sentence, but there is no moral or legal reason whatsoever to subject such a convict to humiliation and disgrace … A prisoner who is serving a long sentence while awaiting disposal of his appeal against capital punishment is already passing through a distressing period. He has to be saved from further agony. … Disgrace and agony is alien to the concept of justice.
…A prisoner cannot be kept under a constant and unending fear of death in hostile surroundings for an uncertain period.”

‘Death row phenomenon’ or ‘Death Row Syndrome’ is an officially validated occurrence where the conditions on death row cause prisoners to suffer severe mental illness and depression, and to have suicidal feelings, for their entire time on death row before they are executed. Solitary confinement and extremely limited physical or emotional contact with others reduces prisoners to animals in cages waiting to be put down. Considering that Manuel Valle has been subjected to 33 years of this, surely he has already been punished enough and his execution, currently scheduled for 2 September 2011, serves no purpose except that of punishing him twice for the same crime.

Marcus Jones, Reprieve. Reprieve  a legal action charity, uses the law to enforce the human rights of prisoners, from death row to Guantánamo Bay. Reprieve investigates, litigates and educates, working on the frontline, to provide legal support to prisoners unable to pay for it themselves. Reprieve promotes the rule of law around the world, securing each person’s right to a fair trial and saving lives.



  1. louise  August 13, 2015

    Do u have family in death row? This is a disgusting blog. They should suffer over and over again, just like the family’s of their victims. Who gives a shit if they acquire disease and depression. I fucking had scum

  2. tony  December 9, 2015

    louise youre the ignorant scum. regardless of the offenders crimes they should not be face two heinous punishments for the same crime. Lock yourself up in a small concrete room with nothing to do for one day and tell me that isn’t punishment enough.

  3. Pete  April 18, 2017

    They should not be a death row when sentenced to death it should be carried out imediately.Death row is such a bunch of bullshit.the lowlife pieces of shit are supposed to die instesd they become celebrities in prison no overcrowding special treatment better than other prizoners.if once u got sentanced to death u were shot imediately on site this country would have so much more money to spend on worthwhile people.not only that i bet crime capitol crime would at least be cut in half if tjese assholes knew they would be dead as soon as sentenced they would think twice about it
    It has to start somewhere take everyone on death row and kill them today all of them and do away with death tje crime get sentenced to death you die it would be so simple and cost effective.just do it

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