Oklahoma’s Death Row Prisoners Are Forced Into Permanent Solitary Confinement. They are ‘Buried Alive,’ Advocates Say.

Civil rights groups demand change as other states move away from the practice of isolating people sentenced to death.

The H Unit at Oklahoma State Penitentiary in McAlester

Oklahoma’s Death Row Prisoners Are Forced Into Permanent Solitary Confinement. They are ‘Buried Alive,’ Advocates Say.

Civil rights groups demand change as other states move away from the practice of isolating people sentenced to death.

A death sentence in Oklahoma means years in near total isolation on the state’s death row, known as H Unit. According to advocates, death row prisoners are trapped inside their cells for at least 22 hours a day. Their only escape is death or a change in their sentence. 

Though many states house people on death row in isolation, the conditions in H Unit are exceptionally brutal, advocates say. Each cell, which is smaller than a parking space, has two concrete bunks, a toilet, and sink. Before leaving the cell, a prisoner’s hands and feet are shackled through a slot in the cell door, the same slot that food trays are passed through. With no windows to the outside and a land bank surrounding most of the building, residents live effectively underground, according to advocates. 

“People in H Unit are literally buried alive,” said David Fathi, director of the ACLU National Prison Project.

Now advocates are seeking to end the practice. In July, several groups, including the National Prison Project, the ACLU of Oklahoma, and the Prison Law Office, sent a letter to the Oklahoma Department of Corrections demanding that it stop placing death row prisoners in solitary confinement simply because they are sentenced to death.  

Instead, the authors wrote, death row prisoners’ housing should be determined like any other prisoner’s, based on their behavior. If the department does not voluntarily take action, the organizations will file suit in federal court, according to the letter, which notes that “minds and bodies” are “irreparably damaged” by solitary confinement. The department’s response is due Thursday, according to the ACLU of Oklahoma. The department did not respond to The Appeal’s questions on the use of permanent solitary confinement for prisoners on death row. 

“Hundreds of years ago, people who were sentenced to death would be physically tortured before their execution,” said Fathi. “Now we psychologically torture people before their execution.” 

H Unit has a long and menacing history. Just weeks after it opened in 1991, Amnesty International sent a letter to the director of the Oklahoma Department of Corrections about the unit’s use of isolation, warning of potential deleterious effects on the state’s death row prisoners. About three years later, Amnesty International released a report on the unit, after a delegation visited and spoke with prisoners and staff. The cells, according to one delegate’s report, give “the appearance of what amounts to a concrete tomb.” He concluded that “these conditions amount to inhuman and degrading treatment.” 

The state’s death row is housed within the Oklahoma State Penitentiary in McAlester. Forty-four of the state’s 47 death row prisoners live in H Unit, according to the Department of Corrections website. The only woman serving a death sentence is at a women’s prison, according to the department. One of the two death-sentenced men not in H Unit is in a federal prison; the other is in a county jail. 

It’s complete sensory deprivation.Corene Kendrick, Prison Law Office

Exercise, which is supposed to be one hour a day five times a week, occurs in a 20-by-20-foot concrete room with an opaque skylight, according to the letter. During visits, permitted on Fridays and weekends, prisoners and their visitors speak by phone, separated by plexiglass. 

“It’s complete sensory deprivation,” said Corene Kendrick, a staff attorney with the Prison Law Office.   

One of the few opportunities for human interaction was during religious services, held twice a month, according to the advocacy groups’ letter. During these services, prisoners—albeit shackled—prayed, sang, and spoke with community members and each other. 

“About 10 guys at a time would gather in a single space and there would be bars between them and the religious volunteers holding the group religious services,” said Megan Lambert, a staff attorney with the ACLU of Oklahoma. “They could hold their Bibles, hold their psalm books, touch each other on the shoulder, give each other hugs.”

But in 2009, then warden Randall Workman, banned group religious services. That’s a violation of the Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Person Act, according to the letter. The statute guarantees people who are incarcerated the right to practice their religion unless the state can show there is a “compelling government interest” to impede that right. In an interoffice memo announcing the termination of “group congregation services,” no justification was provided. Among the groups’ demands is that prison officials reinstate services. The department did not respond to The Appeal’s questions about the ban.

Mary’s brother, who has been on death row for more than 10 years, looked forward to the services, one of his only connections to the outside world, she said. To protect her brother from possible retaliation, The Appeal is not using Mary’s real name. “He would go to these Bible church services and be talking to the preacher and have discussions,” Mary told The Appeal. “That made him feel normal for a while.” 

During his time on death row, the loneliness, she said, has “changed him.” He has talked to her about trying to end his life, she said. “He’s come down to the very second, he’s getting ready to do it, and he wants to do it but he can’t do it,” she said. “He just says, ‘I have to endure this.’” 

Though permanent solitary confinement has been the default for many death rows across the country, there is no “penological justification” for it, according to Fathi. The advocates’ letter cites research that found that death-sentenced prisoners tend to have fewer disciplinary infractions than other incarcerated people. 

“It’s completely irrational to give this one factor decisive control over where and how a prisoner is housed,” he said. 

Several corrections departments have begun to change their practices. In North Carolina, for instance, people on death row are provided weekly religious services, eat meals together, and are permitted in a common room for up to 16 hours a day, according to the letter. 

Changes have been implemented in Virginia as well, as a result of a 2014 lawsuit filed by five death row prisoners. Those sentenced to death can now use a common room for programs, religious services, and employment. They are also provided contact visits and more time outside for recreation. Before these changes, they spent about 23 hours a day in their cells for no other reason than they had been sentenced to death, according to the suit. 

It’s completely irrational to give this one factor decisive control over where and how a prisoner is housed.David Fathi, ACLU National Prison Project

Last year in Pennsylvania, several groups, including Abolitionist Law Center, the ACLU of Pennsylvania, and the ACLU National Prison Project, filed a class action lawsuit, challenging the Pennsylvania Department of Corrections’s policy of placing death row prisoners in permanent solitary confinement. The case is still in litigation, according to Fathi. In July, former Graterford prison superintendent Cynthia Link published an opinion piece on Pennlive.com about the damage inflicted on prisoners on Pennsylvania’s death row and the officers who work there.

The Department of Corrections has thousands of highly professional and deeply committed staff,” she wrote. “But nearly all of their training and expertise are cast aside when it comes to maintaining condemned prisoners in their tiny boxes for decades.”

Prisoners also filed suit against Louisiana for its practice of placing all death row prisoners in solitary confinement. They are currently working on a settlement agreement, the plaintiffs’ attorney, Betsy Ginsberg, told The Appeal. Since the suit was filed in 2017, Ginsberg said, “there have been significant changes.” Men on death row—there is only one woman in the state who is serving a death sentence—have been granted access to congregate classes and religious services, and can eat together during lunch, she said.

Mary hopes the Oklahoma Department of Corrections will implement reforms for her brother and the others condemned in the state who spend, on average, more than 12 years on death row before their executions, according to the state Department of Corrections website

The last person executed in Oklahoma was Charles Frederick Warner, in 2015. Later that year, the state’s then Attorney General Scott Pruitt imposed a moratorium after it was learned that the state had planned to use a drug that had not been approved for lethal injections to kill a death row prisoner, according to The Intercept. In March of this year, Attorney General Mike Hunter announced officials were close to finalizing a new method of execution using nitrogen gas but, according to local reports, the state has had trouble obtaining a device to administer the gas.

Although Mary doesn’t want her brother to die, she believes execution would be more humane than for him to “live like he lives,” she said. “It’s hell on Earth.”

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