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Death Penalty Moratorium Brings California Closer to International Human Rights Norms

CA death chamber
Photo: Office of the Governor of California  https://www.sfgate.com/bayarea/article/Striking-photos-show-San-Quentin-execution-13686251.php#photo-17066014

In March 2019, California Governor Gavin Newsom announced the state’s moratorium on the death penalty. His executive order gave the more than 700 inmates on death row reprieve from future execution (although they are still under sentence of death), closed the execution chamber in San Quentin Prison, and withdrew California’s lethal injection protocol. Governor Newsom’s order is a strong stance against the death penalty in California and the United States. The moratorium in my home state of California coincided with my internship here at The Advocates, where I have both worked on and learned about issues globally and domestically related to the death penalty.

The United States’ use of the death penalty and the conditions on death row are gross violations of global human rights norms. As of 2013, there were 3,000 prisoners on death row across 35 states . In Texas, inmates on death row are held in solitary confinement and spend all but 1-2 hours a day in isolation. When they receive visitors they are barred from having physical contact, including with their children Across the country, 93% of states with the death penalty lock up death row inmates for 22 or more hours a day and 67% of states mandate no-contact visitation for death row inmates. Additionally, 62% of states do not offer religious services to death row inmates. This practice violates the Constitution’s First Amendment, the Religious Freedom Restoration Act (for federal and DC prisons), the Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act, as well as the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights

Being held in solitary confinement, sometimes for decades, has disastrous impacts on the mental health of death row inmates. Craig Haney, a psychologist at University of California Santa Cruz, conducted a 2003 study of inmates in solitary confinement. He found that two-thirds of inmates talked to themselves and nearly half had “perception disorders, hallucinations, or suicidal thoughts” and Stuart Grassian, who interviewed hundreds of inmates in solitary confinement, found that one-third developed severe mental illness. It is not an exaggeration to say that the treatment of death row inmates in solitary confinement amounts to torture. Techniques of social isolation of detainees in Iraq and Afghanistan were some of the most common of the United States’ so-called “enhanced interrogation” techniques. The United Nations Human Rights Council’s Special Rapporteur on Torture, Nils Melzer, has argued these interrogation methods amount to torture. 

The United States’ treatment of death row inmates violates the United Nations’ Standard Minimum Rules of the Treatment of Prisoners, also known as the Nelson Mandela Rules. While the rules are not legally binding, they do set minimum expectations for the treatment of prisoners. The denial of religious services and resources violates two of these rules: rule 4, which states that prisons should offer education and and vocational training and other forms of recreation and assistance, including spiritual assistance, and rule 104, which requires that inmates be provided with religious instruction. With regard to the use of solitary confinement, rule 43 specifically prohibits “prolonged or indefinite solitary confinement.” Rule 45 goes on to prohibit solitary confinement as a condition of a prisoner’s sentence. The routine confinement of death row inmates to solitary confinement for the duration of their incarceration, particularly when mandated by state law, violates these rules.  

The Advocates is actively working to combat the death penalty in the United States and globally. The Advocates is on the Steering Committee of the World Coalition Against the Death Penalty. As part of our human rights advocacy at the UN we advocate against the death penalty by issuing reports and lobbying on the use of the death penalty on minors, inhumane detention conditions, lack of adequate legal representation, and other human rights concerns surrounding the death penalty. As part of this work The Advocates has collaborated not only with the World Coalition Against the Death Penalty but also with local organizations and activists on reporting and advocating against the death penalty around the world. Combating the death penalty is a central piece of The Advocates’ work in international justice, and I am glad to have had the opportunity to be a part of this work.

By Hannah Maycock, a Fall 2018/Spring 2019 International Justice Intern at The Advocates. She graduated with a degree in Political Science from Macalester College May 2019.