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Human Rights Clinic - Designed to Break You, UT School of Law, 2017

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Designed to
Break You
HUMAN RIGHTS VIOLATIONS
ON TEXAS’ DEATH ROW

APRIL 2017
A R E P O RT F R O M T H E H U M A N R I G H T S C L I N I C AT T H E U N I V E R S I T Y O F T E X A S S C H O O L O F L AW

This report does not represent the official position of
the School of Law or the University of Texas, and the views presented here reflect
only the opinions of the individual authors and of the Human Rights Clinic

	

1

TABLE OF CONTENTS
ACRONYMS & ABBREVIATIONS . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .

3

EXECUTIVE SUMMARY . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .

5

INTRODUCTION . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .

8

METHODOLOGY. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .

9

TEXAS IN COMPARISON: “THE CAPITAL OF CAPITAL PUNISHMENT”. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .

11

Conditions On Death Row: Solitary Confinement.
The Current Situation. .
CASE STUDY:

. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .

13

. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .

13

Alfred Dewayne Brown.

. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .

Solitary Confinement in the Capital Punishment System: Texas in Comparison. .
Death Row Syndrome. .
CASE STUDY:

15

. . . . . . . . .

18

. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .

21

Anthony Graves.

. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .

Texas Practice is Contrary to International Human Rights Standards.
Standards Against Inhuman Death Row Conditions.

23

. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .

24

. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .

24

International Criticisms and Recommendations Regarding U.S. and Texas Practices. .

. . . . .

27

. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .

30

REPEATED CALLS UP TO EXECUTION . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .

33

Access to Religious Services and Materials. .

Statutory deficiencies.
CASE STUDY:

. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .

Rolando Ruiz.

. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .

Lasting Psychological Damage. .

. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .

International Human Rights Criticism of Texas’ Practices..

33
35
36

. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .

36

. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .

37

ACCESS TO PHYSICAL & MENTAL HEALTH CARE. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .

39

CASE STUDY:

Kenneth E. Foster, Jr.. .

International Criticism of Texas’ Treatment of Inmates. .

. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .

43

CONCLUSION. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .

45

RECOMMENDATIONS. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .

47

COVER: DabartiCGI/Shutterstock

	

3

ACRONYMS & ABBREVIATIONS
ECHR: 		

European Convention on Human Rights

ECtHR: 	

European Court of Human Rights

IACHR: 	

Inter-American Commission on Human Rights

ICCPR: 	

International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights

OAS: 		

Organization of American States

OHCHR: 	

Office of the High Commission on Human Rights

TDCJ: 		

Texas Department of Criminal Justice

	

5

EXECUTIVE SUMMARY

T

he

S tate of T exas stands today as one of the most extensive utilizers of

the death penalty worldwide. Consequently, inmate living conditions on Texas’ death
row are ripe for review. This report demonstrates that the mandatory conditions
implemented for death row inmates by the Texas Department of Criminal Justice
(TDCJ) are harsh and inhumane. Particular conditions of relevance include

mandatory solitary confinement, a total ban on contact visits with both attorneys and friends
and family, substandard physical and psychological health care, and a lack of access to sufficient
religious services. Investigation into these conditions reveals that current TDCJ policy violates
international human rights norms and standards for confinement. Conditions on death row at
TDCJ’s Polunsky Unit must be remedied posthaste.
In 1999, Texas reintroduced the practice of mandatory solitary confinement for every individual
convicted of capital murder. Solitary confinement involves total segregation of individuals who are
confined to their cells for twenty-two to twenty-four hours per day, with a complete prohibition
on recreating or eating with other inmates. An average cell is no bigger than 8 feet by 12 feet, and
contains only a sink, a toilet, and a thirty-inch-wide steel bunk with a thin plastic mattress. Inmates
are rarely provided with adequate blankets and often suffer from ongoing physical pain due to
the mattress provided. The majority of cells include a small window, but inmates are only able to
see out by rolling up their mattress and standing on it. This fact paired with the lack of adequate
outdoor recreation time means that daily exposure to natural light is rare. Every individual on
Texas’ death row thus spends approximately 23 hours a day in complete isolation for the entire
duration of their sentence, which, on average, lasts more than a decade. This prolonged solitary
confinement has overwhelmingly negative effects on inmates’ mental health, exacerbating existing
mental health conditions and causing many prisoners to develop mental illness for the first time.
In addition to the detrimental effects of isolation, the practice of setting multiple execution dates
means that many prisoners are subjected to the psychological stress of preparing to die several
times during their sentence.
Inmates on death row experience severe barriers to accessing medical care, in part due to being
housed in solitary confinement and being less able to effectively self-advocate. Inmates are not
offered regular physical or psychological check-ups, and must rely on the guards to communicate
and facilitate any healthcare appointments. Such requests for care are, at best, responded to
within a few days, but can go several weeks without a response and are often ignored or forgotten
about. In terms of psychological healthcare – an issue of great importance given that a large
majority of inmates on death row suffer from some form of psychological illness – only inmates
who were already taking psychiatric medication are able to meet regularly with psychiatrists.
Of those inmates who are eventually given access to psychological care, they are generally only
prescribed some form of psychiatric medication, thus exacerbating the unmet need for some form
of counseling or non-pharmaceutical therapy. Inmates with mental illness who do not necessarily

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D E S I G N E D T O B R E A K Y O U : H U M A N R I G H T S V I O L AT I O N S O N T E X A S ’ D E AT H R O W

want or need prescription drugs are essentially provided with only two options: take unwanted
medication, or forgo psychological healthcare entirely.
Another major issue of concern is the lack of access to religious services on death row. The
extent to which inmates are able to access religious text is limited, as Christian bibles are the only
material available from the prison chaplain. Although Christian inmates can request such materials,
they are rarely given access to ministers until the holiday season. For inmates of different faiths,
such as Islam or Judaism, the situation is more difficult as they must solely rely on outside sources
for their religious materials. They are provided with no access to practice their chosen faith, and
are often met with contempt when seeking such access. This has created a harsh environment for
inmates who do not adhere to Christianity, and has enabled a discriminatory system on the basis
of religion on Texas’ death row.
This report, prepared by the Human Rights Clinic at the University of Texas School of Law,
concludes that current conditions in TDCJ facilities constitute a violation of Texas’s duty to
guarantee the rights to health, life, physical integrity, and dignity of detainees, as well as its duty
to prevent cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment of its inmates. These duties are recognized by
human rights instruments such as the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, and the American
Declaration on the Rights and Duties of Man. The Inter-American Commission on Human Rights
and other human rights bodies have repeatedly issued opinions decrying the inhumane conditions
present at the Polunsky Unit. Particularly, international human rights bodies had considered that
the prolonged and mandatory use of solitary confinement is “disproportionate, illegitimate, and
unnecessary”.

	

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RECOMMENDATIONS
The right to be free from torture is an absolute human right, and it is submitted that the current
conditions of confinement on Texas’ death row, including mandatory indefinite isolation, amounts to a
severe and relentless act of torture. The Clinic recommends that TDCJ and the Texas Legislature heed
the numerous advisements of international bodies, and adopt the appropriate measures to remedy
the faults found in this report. This should be done with the implementation of the following:
Solitary Confinement
1.	

Texas should impose strict limits on the use of solitary confinement and bring the conditions of
death row detention facilities into line with international standards.

2.	 Solitary confinement should only be imposed as a measure of last resort, and for as short a
time as possible.
3.	 This includes abolishing the mandatory use of solitary confinement for death row inmates and
reinstating living conditions more similar to an average TDCJ unit.
4.	 Because of its adverse psychological effects, Texas should entirely ban the use of solitary
confinement for inmates with mental illness or intellectual disability.
5.	 Reinstate contact visits for death row inmates, both with family and friends and with attorneys.
6.	 Ensure inmates have access to natural light, fresh air and outdoor activities.
Repeated Calls up to Execution
1.	

Review the current Texas statute to ensure that any and all possible legal remedies are
completely exhausted before an execution date can be set by TDCJ.

2.	 Access to Health Care:
3.	 Make it easier for inmates to request medical care by improving communication channels
between inmates and health care providers.
4.	 Ensure that routine check-ups, both physical and psychological, are conducted at appropriately
frequent intervals.
5.	 Provide counseling and mental health care for inmates both prior to execution and after a lastminute stay has been granted.
Access to Religious Services
1.	

Reinstate communal religious services for inmates at Polunsky Unit.

2.	 Provide easy access for religious volunteers, including ensuring that sufficient guard escorts
are available for visitors.

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D E S I G N E D T O B R E A K Y O U : H U M A N R I G H T S V I O L AT I O N S O N T E X A S ’ D E AT H R O W

INTRODUCTION

A

s of

D ecember 2016, 242 men and women are confined on T exas ’ death

row. On average, each of these inmates has spent 14 years and 6 months housed
1

there.2 Since 1999, 236 of these 242 inmates3 have resided on the death row for men
in the Texas Department of Criminal Justice’s (TDCJ) Polunsky Unit in Livingston,
Texas. Robert Perkinson, the author of TexasTough, described the Polunsky Unit as

“[t]he most lethal [death row] anywhere in the democratic world.”4 In 2016, for the first time in
over a decade, only one state in the U.S. executed more individuals than Texas, with 7 executions
taking place in Texas, and 9 in Georgia.5
This Report aims to be the first in a series of reports issued by the University of Texas at Austin
School of Law Human Rights Clinic, which will
tackle a succession of international human rights
concerns presented by Texas’ implementation of
the death penalty. This Report will focus on current
conditions on Texas’ death row, and how this affects
the day-to-day lives of inmates awaiting execution.
Here, the Clinic will discuss the mandatory use of
solitary confinement for all condemned inmates,
the common issuance of multiple execution dates
(a practice which forces inmates to prepare for
their deaths on more than one occasion), access to
medical treatment (including mental health care),
and access to religious services while on death
row. For each of these issues, the current state of
Texas’ practices will be discussed and compared to
the relevant international human rights standards.
The Report demonstrates that TDCJ’s conditions
fall woefully behind international standards for
confinement.

1	
2	
3	
4	
5	
6	

Raymond Riles, age 66, is currently the longestserving inmate on Texas’ death row. As of December
2016, Riles has been incarcerated on death row for
40 years and 9 months.6 (TDCJ)

Jolie McCullough & Ben Hasson, Faces of Death Row, The Texas Tribune (Jan. 10, 2017), https://apps.texastribune.org/death-row/.
Id.
Id.
James Ridgeway & Jean Casella, America’s 10 Worst Prisons: Polunsky, Mother Jones (May 2, 2013), http://www.motherjones.com/
politics/2013/05/10-worst-prisons-america-allan-polunsky-unit-texas-death-row.
Casey Tolan, Texas Is No Longer America’s Death Penalty Capital, Vice (Dec. 19, 2016), https://www.vice.com/en_uk/article/texas-is-nolonger-americas-death-penalty-capital.
McCullough & Hasson, supra note 1.

	

9

METHODOLOGY

T

his report is a descriptive exploratory case study of death row inmates

in the Polunsky Unit. In preparing this report, the Human Rights Clinic developed
qualitative research methods including questionnaires addressed to inmates and
unstructured interviews with relevant actors, as well as gathering available data
from primary and secondary sources.

Despite a formal request to conduct a visit to the Polunsky Unit, the Texas Department of

Criminal Justice failed to respond. Additional efforts to personally interview death row inmates
also failed. As a result, the Clinic sent questionnaires to all former death row inmates whose
sentences had been commuted and who are now residing in general population prison units.
Questionnaires included a variety of questions, ranging from multiple choice answers to openended questions, whereby inmates were able to provide more personal and detailed descriptions
of their experience on death row. In this instance, the sample population was selected based on
inmates’ experience on both death row and in general population, so as to ensure a sufficient
and well-rounded comparison. Each questionnaire was reviewed by at least two researchers.
Information was analyzed to determine its validity, competence and coherence, which was then
combined with the relevant statistics, legal commentary and descriptions throughout the report.
Careful consideration was taken regarding the request for anonymity of each respondent. The
overwhelming majority of individuals waived their right to anonymity. Ultimately, only the
testimony of those individuals who consented to identification was incorporated into the report.
The report would have benefitted from first-hand information from the victims of the alleged
abuses, namely, those individuals who had been subject to the conditions on death row. The clinic
regrets that the TDCJ failed to grant access to these inmates.
Interviews were conducted with death penalty advocates, capital punishment attorneys, and
exonerated individuals. Initial interviews were conducted with specialists in the field in order
to gather preliminary recommendations and materials. Interviews were conducted via email,
telephone and in-person. The Clinic also requested to meet with the Texas Department of Criminal
Justice prior to publishing this report but was declined.7
The Clinic gathered preliminary information from Texas’ governmental agencies, NGO (local
and international) and international human rights organizations. Statistics were obtained from
government websites, such as the Bureau of Justice website and Texas Department of Criminal
Justice’s information pages, as well as NGO websites, United Nations reports, and reports from
other relevant human rights bodies. Data collected included the number of inmates on Texas death
row by gender, race, and socio-economic background, as well as the average time spent on death
row from conviction to execution. The Clinic also reviewed a number of reports from public and

7	

Letter from Bryan Collier, Executive Director, Texas Department of Criminal Justice, to Ariel Dulitzky, Director, Human Rights Clinic,
University of Texas School of Law (Mar. 27, 2017) (on file with the Human Rights Clinic).

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D E S I G N E D T O B R E A K Y O U : H U M A N R I G H T S V I O L AT I O N S O N T E X A S ’ D E AT H R O W

private organizations related to death row conditions in Texas. This data revealed a consistent
pattern of domestic and international condemnation of the conditions on Texas’ death row.
To introduce a comparative human rights perspective to our analysis, international rulings and
recommendations were gathered from the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights, the
Inter-American Court of Human Rights, and the relevant UN bodies. Research was also conducted
and reference made to decisions of the European Court of Human Rights, which allowed for
a stronger statement on the overall international consensus. Decisions were then analyzed in
conjunction with the relevant international treaty or convention. This combined information was
analyzed together with the information provided by responses to the questionnaires, in order to
establish a clear and consistent picture of the conditions of the capital punishment system within
the state of Texas.
This Report from the Human Rights Clinic of the University of Texas School of Law was cowritten by Abbey Docherty, Briana D. Perez, Karina Carpintero and Fiona Frazell, under the
supervision and guidance of the Clinic’s Director, Ariel Dulitzky.

	

11

TEXAS IN COMPARISON:
“THE CAPITAL OF CAPITAL PUNISHMENT” 8

I

n

1972, the U.S. S upreme C ourt held that imposing death sentences on individuals

convicted of certain crimes constituted “cruel and unusual punishment” as prohibited by the
Eighth Amendment, in addition to violating the Fourteenth Amendment9, outlawing all capital
punishment systems in the United States. The suspension, however, was transitory, with the
Supreme Court reinstating capital punishment in what has come to be known as the Gregg

decision,10 holding that the death penalty was in fact constitutional under the Eighth Amendment.
Since the death penalty’s reinstatement in 1976, Texas has emerged as a particularly lethal state,
often displaying a disregard not only for individual constitutional rights, but of international human
rights standards.11 Many of the international cases
where the U.S. was found in violation of human
rights arise from Texas, with attorneys and advocates
citing a myriad of constitutional and human rights
concerns within the Texan criminal justice system.12
While this report will focus specifically on postsentencing death row conditions, it is important
to touch upon the specific reasons why Texas has
proven to be of particular concern with regards to its
capital punishment system.
While use of the capital punishment nationwide
is in decline,13 Texas accounts for one third of all U.S.
executions. Of the top 15 counties imposing death
sentences, 9 are in Texas.14 This has earned Texas a
reputation as “the capital of capital punishment.”15
Texas’ problems range from “personality-driven
capital sentencing”16 i.e. overzealous prosecutors
seeking capital sentences at all costs, inadequate
8	

Andre Thomas, who killed his wife and stepdaughter while carrying out what he believed was an order
from God to “exorcise their demons.” Thomas later
gouged out his own eyes after reading a passage
from the bible, and was executed despite being diagnosed with paranoid schizophrenia.23 (MOTHER JONES)

Richard C. Dieter, The 2% Death Penalty: How a Minority of Counties Produce Most Death Cases at Enormous Costs to All, Death Penalty
Information Center (2013), http://www.deathpenaltyinfo.org/documents/TwoPercentReport.pdf.
9	
Furman v. Georgia, 408 U.S. 238, 240 (1972).
10	 Gregg v. Georgia, 428 U.S. 153 (1976); Jurek v. Texas, 428 U.S. 262 (1976); Proffitt v. Florida, 428 U.S. 242 (1976).
11	 Moore v. Texas, No. 15-797, slip op. (Mar. 28, 2017).
12	 Texas Defender Service, A state of Denial: Texas Justice and the Death Penalty Overview (2001) http://texasdefender.org/wp-content/
uploads/TDS-2001-StateOfDenial-Ch1.pdf.
13	 Fair Punishment Project, Too Broken to Fix: Part I: An In-depth Look at America’s Outlier Death Penalty Counties (Aug. 2016) http://
fairpunishment.org/wp-content/uploads/2016/08/FPP-TooBroken.pdf.
14	Dieter, supra note 8.
15	 Id.
16	 Fair Punishment Project, America’s Top Five Deadliest Prosecutors: How Overzealous Personalities Drive the Death Penalty (June 2016),
http://fairpunishment.org/wp-content/uploads/2016/06/FPP-Top5Report_FINAL.pdf.

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D E S I G N E D T O B R E A K Y O U : H U M A N R I G H T S V I O L AT I O N S O N T E X A S ’ D E AT H R O W

(SOURCE: BUREAU OF JUSTICE STATISTICS)

legal representation for defendants,17 stark racial and ethnic disparities,18 to problematic
identification of defendants who have a mental illness or intellectual disability.19
Because of the problematic elements described above, many of Texas’ most vulnerable inmates
end up spending decades sitting on death row. Many of TDCJ’s policies regarding conditions on death
row—such as mandatory solitary confinement and the prohibition on inmates being permitted to
work—raise fundamental human rights concerns.20 These concerns are exacerbated by the number of
inmates who are issued the most severe punishment available, and are subsequently housed in Texas’
most restrictive correctional setting. While international standards allow States to maintain a capital
punishment system, international norms impose strict requirements in terms of due process guarantees
and prison conditions in the context of the death penalty21. Many aspects of Texas’ application of the
death penalty fall short of those basic international human rights standards.22 This report documents
and analyzes the conditions on death row from an international human rights perspective, and discusses
some of the Texas-generated human rights cases that have been brought against the U.S., prompting
international condemnation of the practice in Texas.

17	

Texas Defender Service, Lethally Deficient: Direct Appeals in Texas Death Penalty Cases (Sep. 2016), http://texasdefender.org/wpcontent/uploads/TDS-2016-LethallyDeficient-Web.pdf [hereinafter Lethally Deficient].
18	 Too Broken to Fix, supra note 13.
19	 Texas Death Penalty Facts, Texas Coalition to Abolish the Death Penalty, http://tcadp.org/get-informed/texas-death-penalty-facts/.
20	 American Civil Liberties Union, A Death Before Dying: Solitary Confinement on Death Row (July 2013), https://www.aclu.org/files/
assets/deathbeforedying-report.pdf [hereinafter: A Death Before Dying]
21	IACHR, The death penalty in the Inter‐American human rights system: from restrictions to abolition, OEA/Ser.L/V/II. Doc. 68 (31
December 2011), available at https://www.oas.org/en/iachr/docs/pdf/deathpenalty.pdf
22	 See, Id.
23	 How Crazy is too Crazy to be Executed?, Mother Jones (Feb. 12, 2013), http://www.motherjones.com/politics/2013/02/andre-thomasdeath-penalty-mental-illness-texas.

	

13

CONDITIONS ON DEATH ROW: SOLITARY CONFINEMENT
i.

THE CURRENT SITUATION

U

ntil

1999, inmates on T exas ’ death row were housed at the E llis U nit ,

where they received treatment similar to the living conditions of other inmates.24
Prisoners were able to work and receive an education, eat with other inmates, and
recreate together outside of their cells in the yard. In November 1998, seven inmates
attempted an escape from the Ellis Unit, with one inmate successfully escaping.25

TDCJ reacted immediately by moving male death row inmates to the Polunsky Unit, a more secure
prison facility in Livingston, where mandatory solitary confinement was reintroduced. Solitary
confinement is defined by the Istanbul Statement on the Use and Effects of Solitary Confinement as
“the physical isolation of individuals who are confined to their cells for twenty-two to twenty-four
hours a day,”26 meaning that inmates are in complete segregation from other inmates and guards,
for the entire duration of their sentence. While solitary confinement was originally imposed for the
protection of the individuals themselves, it is now a mandatory and permanent feature of death
row.27 Inmates are no longer permitted to eat with each other, instead receiving food from guards
through a slot in the door, and are ultimately segregated from other prisoners in every aspect of
their lives. Unable to eat with other inmates, former inmate Anthony Graves recounts being passed
food through a small slot in the door, analogizing the treatment of inmates to “trained dogs.”28
“[Death row] became a rights-free zone after the 1998 escape … [it is] terrible and absolutely
inhuman.”29 The conditions of confinement are so abhorrent that they have resulted in several
inmates “volunteering” for execution; that is, dropping their appeals in order to reach their execution
date sooner. It has been reported that more than 10% of the executions carried out since 1976 were
of individuals who had dropped their appeals and “volunteered” for execution.30 One former death
row inmate describes the conditions of Texas’s death row as the worst imaginable, stating that the
system is “literally driving men out of their minds.”31 Another Texas inmate characterizes prolonged
solitary confinement as “barbaric and harmful at every level,” describing his own experience as

24	
25	
26	
27	

28	

29	
30	
31	

Dave Mann, Solitary Men: Does prolonged isolation drive death row inmates insane?, Texas Observer (Nov. 10, 2010), https://www.
texasobserver.org/solitary-men/.
The inmate, Martin. E. Gurule, was found dead a week later by police officers.
The Istanbul Statement on the Use and Effects of Solitary Confinement (Dec. 9, 2007), http://solitaryconfinement.org/uploads/Istanbul_
expert_statement_on_sc.pdf.
Reassessing Solitary Confinement II: The Human Rights, Fiscal, and Public Safety Consequences: Hearing Before the Subcomm. on the
Constitution, Civil Rights, and Human Rights on the S. Comm. on the Judiciary, (2014) (submission from the American Civil Liberties
Union of Texas, Texas Civil Rights Project, and Texas Defender Service), http://solitarywatch.com/wp-content/uploads/2014/02/TXDeath-Row-ACLU-of-TX_-TCRP_-TDS.pdf.
Reassessing Solitary Confinement: The Human Rights, Fiscal and Public Safety Consequences: Hearing Before the Subcomm. On the
Constitution, Civil Rights, and Human Rights on the S. Comm. On the Judiciary, (2012) (testimony by Anthony C. Graves) [hereinafter
Anthony Graves testimony].
Telephone interview with Brian Stolarz, attorney, and Alfred Dewayne Brown, exonerated former Texas Death Row Inmate (Dec. 2, 2016).
A Death Before Dying, supra note 20.
Anthony Graves testimony, supra note 28.

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THE TEXAS TRIBUNE

“arbitrary, inhumane and unsafe.”32 In their questionnaire responses, inmates frequently expressed
the sentiment of feeling dehumanized or treated like an animal.33 As one former resident of the
Polunsky Unit writes, “we are objects, not people.”34
Conditions on death row—particularly the mandatory use of solitary confinement—are overly
harsh and ultimately incompatible with international human rights law. The Inter-American
Commission on Human Rights (IACHR)—an autonomous body of the Organization of American
States (OAS) charged with monitoring human rights in the Americas—has developed clear standards
for segregation, similarly to other human rights bodies, “stating that solitary confinement shall
only be permitted as a disposition of last resort and for a strictly limited time, when it is evident
that it is necessary to ensure legitimate interests relating to the institution’s internal security,
and to protect fundamental rights, such as the right to life and integrity of persons deprived of
liberty or the personnel.”35 The American Bar Association has stated that prisoners should not be
placed in solitary confinement for reasons other than personal safety, discipline, medical care or
mental health care. If segregated, it should be for “the briefest term and under the least restrictive
conditions practicable.”36 In stark contradiction to these standards, every individual on Texas’
death row now spends 22-23 hours per day alone, in a cell approximately 8 feet by 12 feet, for
the entire duration of their sentence, which lasts more than a decade on average.37 Although
there is no universal standard for how big a prison cell should be, the IACHR has stated that
32	 Response by Roderick K. Johnson to Human Rights Clinic questionnaire.
33	 Responses by Nanon Williams, Adrian Estrada, Jose Briseno, Gene Hathorn and Mariano J. Rosales to Human Rights Clinic questionnaire.
34	 Response by Nanon Williams to Human Rights Clinic questionnaire.
35	IACHR, Principles and Best Practices on the Protection of Persons Deprived of Liberty in the Americas, available at http://www.oas.org/
en/iachr/mandate/Basics/principlesdeprived.asp [hereinafter IAHCR Principles and Best Practices].
36	 American Bar Association, ABA Standards for Criminal Justice: Treatment of Prisoners (2010), http://www.abanet.org/crimjust/policy/
midyear2010/102i.pdf.
37	 Death Row Facts, Texas Department of Criminal Justice, https://www.tdcj.state.tx.us/death_row/dr_facts.html.

	

15

CASE STUDY

Alfred Dewayne Brown
Alfred Dewayne Brown spent more than a decade on Texas’ death row, after being wrongfully
convicted of capital murder in 2005. Brown was ultimately exonerated in June 2015.
Brown describes his time on death row as torture, recounting his complete segregation from
other people for over a decade. Visitors were
permitted for two hours at a time and needed to be
placed in advance on his visitation list, which could
only include ten people at any one time. With all
visits conducted behind glass, Brown was deprived
of physical contact with his family, and could not
so much as shake the hand of his attorney until his
release in 2015. He was also physically segregated
from other inmates for the entire duration of his
incarceration. He could shout to people in other
cells. It was always incredibly noisy, which made it
hard to think, let alone converse with others.
Apart from yelling, the only way inmates could

Alfred Dewayne Brown being released from prison in June 2015 (THE HUFFINGTON POST)

interact with each other was to send “kites”; that
is, attaching a note to a shoelace or piece of string to send it through to another cell. “If you get
caught the guards will write you up, which you try to avoid happening, but you still take the chance
as a way to communicate.”38
Brown’s cell was a mere thirteen paces from the back wall to the front wall; if he spread his arms
he could touch both walls at once, and could reach the ceiling by raising his arms. The cell contained
one tiny window which he could only see out of by standing on his bunk, severely limiting available
daylight. For some inmates, he recalls, their window simply looked onto the back of another cell.
Brown was given only one blanket, which was too small to cover him. During the summer, it can get
extremely hot due to the guards refusing to turn on the air conditioning. Only when a group of men
got together to “complain”—which Brown described as including running when taken out of the cell,
yelling, or throwing feces at the guards—would the guards turn it on. “[T]he Polunsky Unit strips
you of your manhood … you have no privacy whatsoever.” He describes constant strip searches, a
practice which is unnecessarily degrading and can have a serious impact on inmates’ self-respect.
“The cell is designed to break you. It’s torture. The cell is torturing you, and the guards are picking
on you and messing with you, and there’s nothing you can do about it.”

Further, Brown describes the lack of recreational or educational, explaining that inmates can
request a book from the library, but they are never sure what they will receive and are permitted to

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D E S I G N E D T O B R E A K Y O U : H U M A N R I G H T S V I O L AT I O N S O N T E X A S ’ D E AT H R O W

keep the book for a mere 24 hours. Certain authors and genres are not permitted in the prison, and
Brown explains that inmates can be granted permission for a specific book from the mail room,
only to be denied permission when it arrives. Inmates can purchase a radio from commissary with
their own money, but it is of very poor quality. This is their primary means of communication with
the outside world for the entirety of their stay.39

“persons deprived of liberty shall have adequate floor space, daily exposure to natural light [and]
appropriate ventilation and heating.”383940 As will be discussed later in this report, daily exposure to
natural light for residents of the Polunsky Unit is rare. The cell contains only a sink, a toilet, and a
steel thirty-inch-wide bunk with a thin plastic mattress.41 Inmates are able to look out of the small
window in their cell only by rolling up their mattress and standing on it.42 Inmates often develop
back problems from sleeping on the harsh steel bed, and they must use the toilet in their cell
without any privacy, in plain sight of correctional officers.43
“Visits keep an inmate alive. They keep you in tune with life and remind you to seek redemption,
forgiveness and change. It’s the people that support us that we owe more than we owe ourselves.” 44

Not only does Texas hold all death row inmates in mandatory solitary confinement, the state also
enforces a complete ban on “contact visits,” meaning that death row inmates are disallowed from
physically touching their visitors.45 The resulting consequences for inmates’ mental health and quality
of life will be covered later in this report; however, in addition to the ban’s psychological impact, the
non-contact rule often makes it hard for inmates to interact with their attorneys.46 Brian Stolarz, the
attorney responsible for Alfred Dewayne Brown’s exoneration from Texas’ death row, has explained
that while there are no hourly restrictions on attorney visits, they are always conducted over a
phone, through a plexiglass window.47 Until Brown’s exoneration, Stolarz was not able to shake his
hand once during the eight years he represented him. There is one private visitor booth but it is often
occupied, meaning he was required to discuss a private case and have privileged conversations with
his client within earshot of a number of other people. This often made it difficult to discuss the case
in detail. Knowing the depth of the conditions to which his client was subjected, Stolarz would spend
38	

39	
40	
41	
42	
43	
44	
45	
46	
47	

Interview with Alfred Dewayne Brown, December 2016. Being “written up” is part of the disciplinary process, whereby a disciplinary
action will be recorded in an inmate’s records if they are found to be acting in violation of any of the rules and regulations of the TDCJ.
The written report will be forwarded to the supervisor and, if the incident cannot be resolved informally, a Disciplinary Report shall be
filed, formally charging the offender with violating the TDCJ rule. See Disciplinary Rules and Procedures for Offenders, Texas Department
of Criminal Justice (2015), https://www.tdcj.state.tx.us/documents/cid/Disciplinary_Rules_and_Procedures_for_Offenders_English.
pdf.
Interview with Alfred Dewayne Brown, December 2016.
IAHCR Principles and Best Practices, supra note 35.
Anthony Graves testimony, supra note 28.
Id.
Id.
Response by Kenneth E. Foster Jr to Human Rights Clinic questionnaire.
A Death Before Dying, supra note 20.
Responses by Christian Olsen and Jose Briseno to Human Rights Clinic questionnaire.
Telephone interview with Brian Stolarz, supra note 29.

	

17

as much time as possible at the Unit during
each visit. Stolarz describes the fact that
attorneys were permitted to bring money
for the vending machines as one of the
few humane aspects of the visitation. This
allowed attorneys to effectively have a meal
with their clients, which helped establish
a human connection in the non-contact
environment. This privilege, however, had
been terminated by the time Brown was
released.48
The UN “Standard Minimum Rules for

A typical death row cell in the Polunsky Unit. (MOTHER JONES)

the Treatment of Prisoners,” also known as
the Mandela Rules, the most authoritative rules available representing the international consensus
on prison conditions, require that “every prisoner who is not employed in outdoor work shall have at
least one hour of suitable exercise in the open air daily.”49 TDCJ policy50 permits inmates 1-2 hours of
recreation time per day, but after surveying and interviewing inmates, the ACLU has concluded that
in practice, death row inmates often do not receive outdoor recreation time.51 Inmate responses to
the clinic support this conclusion.52 Of those prisoners who are awarded some recreation time, this
often merely involves being moved from their cell to a “dayroom” or “cage” for one hour per day; they
remain alone in that space for the entire duration of their “recreation” time.53 Several inmates who
have had their capital sentences reduced to life imprisonment spent time on death row in both the
Ellis Unit and the Polunsky Unit. One inmate, Anthony Pierce, describes the difference between the
two units in terms of recreation time. He explains that prior to 1999 at the Ellis Unit, he was given
recreation time five days a week for around three hours a day, and was able to recreate with other
inmates. During that time, he had access to the outdoors and sunlight. Upon being moved to Polunsky,
group recreation was terminated and sunlight was a “rare occurrence”, as he was permitted outdoor
recreation only once a week, for one hour.54 Several inmates echoed Pierce’s complaint about lack of
sunlight.55 Due to the configuration of the “outside yard,” a small enclosure with high concrete walls
and a metal grate caging in the top, “[t]he sun had to be right above you to be able to catch any of it,”
or there would be “no sunlight due to bars.”56 Indeed, several of the inmates describe the difference
48	
49	

Telephone interview with Brian Stolarz, supra note 29.
United Nations Standard Minimum Rules for the Treatment of Prisoners (the Mandela Rules), U.N. Doc. E/CN.15/2015/L.6/Rev.1 (May
4, 2015) [hereinafter Mandela Rules] at rule 23(1).
50	 American Civil Liberties Union and Texas Civil Rights Project, A Solitary Failure: The Waste, Cost and Harm of Solitary Confinement
in Texas (2015), https://www.texascivilrightsproject.org/en/wp-content/uploads/2016/04/tcrp2015_solitary.pdf [hereinafter Solitary
Failure].
51	 Id.
52	 Responses by Whitney Lee Reeves, Efrain Perez, John Dewberry, Walter Bell, Jr., Nanon Williams, Mariano J. Rosales, Anthony Pierce,
Gene Hathorn, Fernando Garcia, Kenneth Foster, Jr., and Adrian Estrada to Human Rights Clinic questionnaire.
53	See Id.; Solitary Failure, supra note 50.
54	 Response by Anthony Pierce to Human Rights Clinic questionnaire.
55	 Responses by Whitney Lee Reeves, Miguel Angel Martinez, Gene Hathorn, Mariano J. Rosales and Nanon Williams to Human Rights
Clinic questionnaire.
56	 Responses by Mariano J. Rosales and Nanon Williams to Human Rights Clinic questionnaire.

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between Ellis Unit and Polunsky Unit as being “night and day.”57 Prior to being moved to the Polunsky
Unit, Kenneth E. Foster, Jr. was on death row at the Ellis Unit, where he was permitted to work and
had group recreation time. Upon being moved to the Polunsky Unit, Foster was permitted outside
recreation only twice a week. He explains that often, the guards would refuse to take inmates outside
“simply because they knew death row inmates enjoyed the ‘outside yard,’” which Foster describes
as a “kennel size[d] space with stone walls that extend maybe 30 feet into the air.”58 When asked
about opportunities for outdoor recreation, many of the inmates gave similarly critical responses and
several referred to “outside” using quotation marks.59 Inmates with disciplinary infractions on Texas’
death row can be placed in even harsher conditions of segregation than the standard segregation
units, described as “Level 3,” where they are deprived not only of contact, daylight, recreation and
television, but of radios, fans, and alarmingly, hygiene products such as toothpaste.60
The Mandela Rules prescribe that provision shall be made for the further education of inmates
and that education of illiterate inmates is compulsory.61 The UN Office of the High Commissioner
on Human Rights (OHCHR) has reiterated this rule, stating that “education and cultural activities
shall be provided and encouraged, including access to an adequate library.”62 Despite this standard,
inmates on Texas’ death row cannot work nor are they entitled to any form of education, and
thus spend every day of their lives, from sentencing to execution, in complete isolation. Kenneth
Foster explained that the prison did not provide any educational materials; inmates’ access to such
materials entirely depended on the support they had from outside. According to Foster, “you were
there simply to exist until your execution arrived.”63 In sum, prolonged and mandatory solitary
confinement is “disproportionate, illegitimate and unnecessary.”64 Texas has not advanced any
specific justifications for the indiscriminate and harsh use of solitary confinement. 
ii.

S
 OLITARY CONFINEMENT IN THE CAPITAL PUNISHMENT
SYSTEM: TEXAS IN COMPARISON

A s previously explained , solitary confinement is the practice of isolating individuals in small
cells for twenty-two to twenty-four hours a day.65 Although prisons throughout the U.S. utilize
solitary confinement, it is important to examine the specific practices that cause Texas’ imposition
of solitary confinement in the capital punishment system to stand out as particularly draconian.
There are currently more than 3,000 prisoners confined on death rows in 35 states, with the
57	
58	
59	

Responses by Whitney Lee Reeves, John Dewberry and Christian Olsen to Human Rights Clinic questionnaire.
Response by Kenneth E. Foster, Jr. to Human Rights Clinic questionnaire.
Responses by Whitney Lee Reeves, Efrain Perez, John Dewberry, Walter Bell, Jr., Nanon Williams, Mariano J. Rosales, Anthony Pierce,
Gene Hathorn, Fernando Garcia and Adrian Estrada to Human Rights Clinic questionnaire.
60	 Elisa Mosler, Texas Lockdown: Solitary Confinement in the Lonestar State, Solitary Watch (July 6, 2011) http://solitarywatch.
com/2011/07/06/solitary-confinement-in-texas-a-long-way-to-reform/
61	 Mandela Rules, supra note 49, at rule 104.
62	 Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights, Human Rights and Prisons, A Pocketbook of International Human
Rights Standards for Prison Officials (2005), http://www.ohchr.org/Documents/Publications/training11Add3en.pdf.
63	 Response by Kenneth E. Foster, Jr. to Human Rights Clinic questionnaire.
64	 IACHR, Report No. 44/14, Case 12.873. Merits (Publication). Edgar Tamayo Arias, United States. July 17, 2014. OEA/Ser.L./V/II.151, doc.
9 ¶ 182.
65	 The Istanbul Statement on the Use and Effects of Solitary Confinement (Dec. 9, 2007), http://solitaryconfinement.org/uploads/Istanbul_
expert_statement_on_sc.pdf.

	

19

majority of these inmates being held in solitary confinement.66 The bulk of these inmates are held
in solitary confinement based purely on their capital conviction, rather than for reasons related
to discipline, security, or crime.67 Texas’ practice of imposing mandatory solitary confinement on
individuals convicted of a capital crime bears no relation to safety or discipline, factors which
should be considered when imposing segregation. In recent years, states such as Missouri, North
Carolina, and Colorado have abolished such mandatory practices68. Death row conditions can vary
widely, from extremely restrictive to identical to general population prisons. Although the specific
conditions of inmates on death row in each death penalty state have proven difficult to track, as
states are not required to report on such matters, it is clear nevertheless that Texas’ death row is
significantly more restrictive than other states.69 In Block v. Rutherford, the Supreme Court held
that prison officials had the right to enforce a general ban against any kind of “contact visit” for
individuals on death row; that is, visits from family and friends where inmates can physically hug
and touch their visitors.70 Texas has made sweeping use of this ruling, completely banning any
contact visits with family or attorneys for death row inmates, even at the final visit on the day of
execution.71 In comparison, California, Alabama, Georgia, Missouri, Nevada, Ohio, and Indiana all
allow contact visits with both family members and attorneys. Arkansas and Louisiana allow contact
visits with family members, while Colorado, Idaho, New Jersey and Oklahoma allow contact visits
with attorneys.72 In Texas, inmates are only able to connect with their loved ones through a glass
screen, and are not permitted to make phone calls to their families or attorneys, unlike prisoners
in general population. This has a profound effect not only on the inmates themselves, but on the
family and friends who suffer alongside their loved ones. Further, Texas is one of only two states—
the other being Oklahoma—that does not permit death row inmates access to any television,
effectively barring inmates who cannot afford radios from the outside world.73
Inmates on Ohio’s death row are housed at the Chillicothe Correctional Institution, which is
comprised of three separate units. While inmates are housed in individual cells, each unit has a
common area for all inmates, which includes tables and recreation equipment, a television, books,
and board games.74 Inmates are permitted access to the recreation rooms daily. This contrasts
dramatically with Texas’s death row, where no recreational materials or group recreation is
provided. A survey completed in 2014 found that the majority of inmates on Ohio’s death row felt
that they received adequate clothing and bedding, and were given access to showers regularly.75
66	
67	
68	

A Death Before Dying, supra note 20.
Id.
Death Penalty News, U.S.: Rethinking solitary confinement for death row inmates, June 11, 2015. https://deathpenaltynews.blogspot.
com/2015/06/us-rethinking-solitary-confinement-for.html. See also, The Arthur Liman Public Interest Program Yale Law School,
Rethinking “Death Row”: Variations in the Housing of Individuals Sentenced to Death, New Haven, (July 2016) https://law.yale.edu/
system/files/documents/pdf/Liman/deathrow_reportfinal.pdf
69	 Alanna Durkin, Virginia just made death row a little easier, US News (Oct 2015), available: http://www.usnews.com/news/us/
articles/2015/10/16/virginia-quietly-grants-death-row-inmates-new-privileges
70	 Block v. Rutherford, 468 U.S. 576, 587 (1984).
71	 A Death Before Dying, supra note 20.
72	 Death Row Conditions, Death Penalty Information Center, http://www.deathpenaltyinfo.org/documents/DeathRowConditions.xls
73	 Anthony Graves Testimony, supra note 28.
74	 CORRECTIONAL INSTITUTION INSPECTION COMMITTEE REPORT ON THE INSPECTION AND EVALUATION OF CHILLICOTHE
CORRECTIONAL INSTITUTION (March 2014), available: http://www.ciic.state.oh.us/docs/Chillicothe%20Correctional%20
Institution%202014.pdf [Hereinafter Chillicothe Report]
75	 Id.

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D E S I G N E D T O B R E A K Y O U : H U M A N R I G H T S V I O L AT I O N S O N T E X A S ’ D E AT H R O W

Inmates felt that they had positive relationships with staff, guards and the warden, with one
inmate adding that he was always treated with respect.76 This is a stark difference compared to
inmates’ reported relationships and interactions with the guards on Texas’ death row, where the
problematic relationship between inmates and guards has a significantly detrimental impact on
many of the inmates’ day-to-day lives, particularly in terms of medical care, an issue which will be
discussed later in this report.77
Virginia—a state which once rivalled Texas for dire death row conditions—has begun the process
of granting more humane conditions to inmates housed on death row. Previously, inmates were
permitted to leave their cells only three times a week for showers. They were permitted only five
hours of recreation time per week which, much like the current situation in Texas, entailed simply
being moved to a larger cell. Additionally, inmates were prohibited from contact visits. Following
a number of legal challenges to the conditions on Virginia’s death row, the situation today appears
to be somewhat improved. Inmates receive more recreation time and are permitted to recreate
with other inmates outside their cells for up to an hour each day. Inmates are now permitted to
watch television, use the telephone and, importantly, are permitted contact visits with relatives.78
Inmates on Ohio’s death row are allowed access to telephones and visits from friends and family.
Inmates also made a point of mentioning the windows in their cells which provide daylight, and
which they are able to open so they can feel fresh air, a significant difference from inmates on
Texas’ death row, who barely see any daylight and are almost never able to feel fresh air.79 Inmates
on Missouri’s death row are not only housed with general population prisoners, but have access
to telephones and are offered the same education and recreational programs as other prisoners.80
Inmates at the Polunsky Unit in Texas have no access to telephones, and as previously explained,
are prohibited from any contact visits whatsoever.81 Protocol on Texas’ death row is demonstrably
more severe than that of states such as Ohio and Missouri. It was reported in 2014 that 10 states
adopted a number of measures aimed at reforming the use of solitary confinement in prisons.82
Texas is not one of those states and continues to violate both domestic and international human
rights standards.
iii.

D
 EATH ROW SYNDROME

S ignificant research has shown that prolonged solitary confinement not only exacerbates
pre-existing mental health disorders, but also results in the development of new conditions in

76	
77	

78	
79	
80	
81	
82	

Marc Kovac, Capital News: Survey gives public a peek at death row conditions, Twinsburg Bulletin (May 2014), available: http://www.
twinsburgbulletin.com/opinion/2014/05/29/capital-news-survey-gives-public-a-peek-at-death-row-conditions
Responses by Gregory Van Alstyn, Whitney Lee Reeves, Efrain Perez, John Dewberry, Mark Arthur, Nanon Williams, Christian Olsen,
Miguel Angel Martinez, John Herrin, Gene Hathorn, Fernando Garcia, Adrian Estrada, David DeBlanc and Jose Briseno to Human Rights
Clinic questionnaire.
Alanna Durkin, Virginia just made death row a little easier, supra note 69.
Mark Kovac, Capital News: Survey gives public a peek at death row conditions, supra note 76.
Id.
A Death Before Dying, supra note 20.
Eli Hager & Gerald Rich, Shifting Away from Solitary, The Marshall Project (Dec. 12, 2014), https://www.themarshallproject.org/2014/12/23/
shifting-away-from-solitary#.TZ4wKsc1s

	

21

otherwise unaffected individuals.83 Indeed, it has been found that about one-third of prisoners
in solitary confinement develop some form of severe mental illness.84 The combination of the
dehumanizing conditions on death row—such as long-term isolation and lack of human contact—
and the length of time inmates spend awaiting death has extremely detrimental effects on the
individuals’ well-being.85 This has come to be known as the death row phenomenon. Death
row syndrome, however, is the term
used to describe the psychological
trauma which occurs as a result of
the death row phenomenon.86 The
concept is believed to have first been
defined in Soering v United Kingdom87,
where the European Court of Human
Rights (ECtHR) held that exposure
to the death row phenomenon, and
consequent suffering of death row
syndrome, was a violation of Article 3
of the European Convention on Human
Rights (ECHR), specifically the right

Jean Soering (THE VIRGINIAN-PILOT)

to be free from torture, inhumane or
degrading treatment or punishment.88 The European Court subsequently stated that the UK could
not extradite the applicant to the United States if he would be subject to death row, as doing so
would be equivalent to condemning the applicant to torture.
Inmates in solitary confinement report severe depression, memory loss, suicidal tendencies and
an inability to relax, unable to keep track of time due to the tiny window and lack of natural daylight
in the cell.89 Many inmates are plagued by a number of symptoms and illnesses which they did
not experience prior to their time on death row. Attorney Brian Stolarz reports that conditions of
confinement broke a lot of people mentally.90 Inmates held in solitary confinement are effectively
subject to a severe form of psychological torture every day of their lives. One inmate described his
experience with prolonged solitary confinement by stating that it “tends to alter reality for those
who suffer the fate.”91 The same inmate reported multiple instances where his fellow inmates—
some of whom had never previously exhibited signs of mental illness—made suicide attempts or
severely injured themselves.92 Kenneth Foster, an inmate whose capital sentence was reduced to
83	
84	
85	
86	
87	
88	
89	
90	
91	
92	

The Istanbul Statement on the Use and Effects of Solitary Confinement (Dec. 9, 2007), http://solitaryconfinement.org/uploads/Istanbul_
expert_statement_on_sc.pdf.
Dave Man, supra note 24.
Id.
Time on Death Row, Death Row Information Center, http://www.deathpenaltyinfo.org/time-death-row#drs.
Soering v. United Kingdom, 161 Eur. Ct. H.R. (1989).
European Convention for the Protection of Human Rights and Fundamental Freedoms, art. 3, (Nov. 4, 1950), http://www.echr.coe.int/
Documents/Convention_ENG.pdf.
Solitary Failure, supra note 50.
Telephone interview with Brian Stolarz, supra note 29.
Response by Gene Hathorn to Human Rights Clinic questionnaire.
Id.

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life imprisonment, describes death row as a “slow mental, physical and spiritual torture.”93 The
severe isolation experienced as a result of complete segregation from other inmates is further
exacerbated by the limitations on visits from family members.
“The isolation is really hard for me. Sometimes I feel desperate just to see or talk to another
person ... I haven’t hugged my mother since 1998 ... The only time I feel another person’s touch
is when a guard puts handcuffs on my wrist to take me to shower or recreation.”94 — Rolando
Ruiz, an inmate on Texas’ Death Row

In the case of Rolando Ruiz, expert testimony attested to the psychological effects of prolonged
confinement on Texas’ death row. The expert testified to the fact that prolonged isolation often
leads to anxiety, paranoia and hallucinations, depression, increased anger and lack of impulse
control.95 She discussed the disproportionate number of mentally ill individuals on death row,
stating that the isolation and idleness exacerbates the condition, often resulting in psychotic
episodes or suicide attempts. Indeed, it is reported that self-injury is eight times more likely, and
suicide five times more likely, in Texas’ solitary-confinement facilities than in general population.96
As a response to this, and similar situations in other states, a nationwide consensus appears to
have been formed regarding exclusion of the mentally ill from solitary confinement. Despite this
consensus and repeated calls by UN human rights bodies to end this practice,97 Texas continues to
mandate solitary confinement for every individual convicted of capital murder.
Given the research on the death row phenomenon and death row syndrome, it should come
as no surprise that almost every inmate who replied to the questionnaire reported experiencing
some degree of mental and emotional distress. In addition to anxiety, depression, anger, and
suicidal thoughts, which were extremely common among the respondents, inmates described
having frequent nightmares, losing their hair due to stress and developing paranoid delusions.98
Not only did inmates report that solitary confinement had a profoundly negative effect on their
mental health for the duration of their stay on death row, but many inmates reported that even
years after leaving solitary confinement, they continue to suffer from long-term psychological
effects as a result of their time spent in solitary.99 Many had difficulty readjusting to life in general
population. Some former death row inmates report suffering symptoms of posttraumatic stress
disorder, depression or paranoia after their experience on death row, while others describe feeling
uncomfortable around people or have a hard time sleeping with a cellmate in the room.
93	
94	
95	
96	
97	

98	
99	

Response by Kenneth E. Foster, Jr.to Human Rights Clinic questionnaire.
Expert Report of Terry A. Kupers re: Rolando Ruiz, June 16, 2016, page 15. Brief for Applicant, Ex parte Ruiz, (Tex. Crim. App. 2016)
[hereinafter Kupers Report].
Id.
Solitary Failure, supra note 50.
See, e.g., United Nations, Human Rights Committee, Concluding observations on the fourth periodic report of the United States of
America, CCPR/C/USA/CO/4 ¶ 20 (April 23, 2014), available at undocs.org/CCPR/C/USA/CO/4; United Nations, Committee Against
Torture, Concluding Observations on the Combined Third to Fifth Periodic Reports of the United States of America, CAT/C/USA/CO/3-5
(19 Dec. 2014), available at undocs.org/CAT/C/USA/CO/3-5.
Responses by Adrian Estrada and Gene Hathorn to Human Rights Clinic questionnaires.
Responses by Whitney Lee Reeves, John Dewberry, Mark Arthur, Nanon Williams, Miguel Angel Martinez, Gene Hathorn, Kenneth E.
Foster, Jr., Adrian Estrada, David DeBlanc and Carl Brooks to Human Rights Clinic questionnaire.

	

23

Anthony Graves testifying in 2012 (DEMOCRACYNOW.ORG)

CASE STUDY

Anthony Graves
In 1992, Anthony Graves was wrongfully convicted of murdering a woman and her four
grandchildren in Somerville, Texas. Despite the fact that there was no physical evidence
linking him to the crime, and the fact that his conviction was entirely based on false testimony,
Graves spent 12 years on Texas’ death row100 and was given an execution date twice before his
exoneration in 2010. 101
Graves has spent the majority of his time and effort since his release advocating for a complete
reform of the Texas capital punishment system, including a reassessment of the conditions
on death row, including the mandatory imposition of solitary confinement.102 Testifying to the
Senate Judiciary Committee Subcommittee on The Constitution, Civil Rights & Human Rights,
Graves described the psychological impact that solitary confinement had on him and his fellow
inmates.103 He describes experiencing severe sleep deprivation due to the noise of inmates
kicking and screaming, and explained that some men became paranoid and schizophrenic,
unable to sleep due to hearing voices.104 He witnessed multiple suicide attempts and testified
that, “I would watch guys come to prison totally sane and in three years they don’t live in the real
world anymore.” 105
Despite being released several years ago, Graves admits that he still suffers from the
psychological injuries he sustained during his time on death row. “Solitary confinement does one
thing; it breaks a man’s will to live and he ends up deteriorating.” 106

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D E S I G N E D T O B R E A K Y O U : H U M A N R I G H T S V I O L AT I O N S O N T E X A S ’ D E AT H R O W

“But, I must admit that the 10 years on D/R [death row] has left me scarred mentally,
psychologically and emotionally. It’s a daily struggle—for the most part I just want to be ‘alone.’
I love solitude. When I first got off D/R and was assigned to my 1st Unit…I couldn’t sleep in
the same cage with anyone. I even went to the extreme of getting myself locked up [placed
in administrative segregation] for 5 years after getting off D/R. That’s how badly I wanted to
be alone. Till this day, I’m uncomfortable in the dayroom or being around lots of people.”107
—Carl Brooks, a former inmate on Texas’ Death Row

During their stay on death row, inmates may long for the human contact they are deprived
of, but after spending years in isolation, some individuals find themselves disturbed by close
proximity to others. As Whitney Lee Reeves describes, “prior to being locked up I didn’t have
a problem with shaking hands or someone clapping me or patting me on the back or shoulder.
Now, I do not like to be touched, and only shake hands with very close friends.”108 Some former
death row residents eventually fully reacclimatize to life outside of solitary, but many inmates
made statements to the effect that they believed themselves to be permanently scarred by their
experiences at the Polunsky Unit.109
v.

T
 EXAS PRACTICE IS CONTRARY TO INTERNATIONAL HUMAN RIGHTS STANDARDS

a.

Standards Against Inhuman Death Row Conditions

A s previously discussed , many of TDCJ’s policies raise serious human rights concerns. It is
a violation of the Convention Against Torture—to which the U.S. is a party—to intentionally
inflict “severe pain or suffering, whether physical or mental … for such purposes as punishing
[a person] for an act he has committed.”110 The Convention provides that “Each State Party shall
keep under systematic review…arrangements for the custody and treatment of persons subjected
to any form of arrest, detention or imprisonment in any territory under its jurisdiction, with
a view to preventing any cases of torture111…Each State Party shall…prevent…other acts of
cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment which do not amount to torture.”112 The

100	
101	
102	
103	
104	
105	
106	
107	
108	
109	
110	

Graves was wrongfully imprisoned for a total of 18 years.
Texas Defender Service, Press Release (Feb. 8, 2016), http://texasdefender.org/press-releases/.
Anthony Graves Foundation, http://www.anthonygravesfoundation.org/.
Anthony Graves testimony, supra note 28.
Id.
Id.
Id.
Response by Carl Brooks to Human Rights Clinic questionnaire.
Response by Whitney Lee Reeves to Human Rights Clinic questionnaire.
Responses by Carl Brooks, John Dewberry and Nanon Williams to Human Rights Clinic questionnaire.
General Assembly Resolution 39/46, Convention Against Torture and Other Cruel, Unhuman or Degrading Treatment or Punishment, A/
RES/39/46 art. 1 (June 26, 1987), available at undocs.org/A/RES/39/46.
111	 Id., art. 11
112	 Id., art. 16

	

25

United Nations Special Rapporteur on Torture,113 Juan Mendez, has noted the significant harms of
solitary confinement: “Segregation, isolation, separation, cellular, lockdown, Supermax, the hole,
Secure Housing Unit… whatever the name, solitary confinement should be banned by States as a
punishment or extortion technique…Solitary confinement is a harsh measure which is contrary to
rehabilitation, the aim of the penitentiary system.”114 The Special Rapporteur emphasized that any
placement in solitary confinement for longer than 15 days should be prohibited.115 For Texas death
row inmates, 15 days is infinitesimal compared to the average decade which they spend in solitary
confinement where, according to one inmate, “anyone will develop psychological trauma.”116 In
2013, the Special Rapporteur stated that “no prisoner, including those serving life sentences and
prisoners on death row, shall be held in solitary confinement merely because of the gravity of the
crime.”117 Texas’ system of mandatory isolation for individuals convicted of capital murder clearly
violates this standard.
The UN Subcommittee on Prevention of
Torture and Other Cruel, Inhuman or Degrading
Treatment or Punishment has pointed out that
prolonged solitary confinement may amount to
an act of torture and other cruel, inhuman or
degrading treatment or punishment.118 Article
17 of the International Covenant on Civil and
Political Rights (ICCPR), which the U.S. has
ratified, states that prisoners have the right
to family and correspondence. The Special
Rapporteur on Torture has stated that “access to
meaningful human contact within the prison and
contact with the outside world are also essential
to the psychological health of detainees held in
solitary confinement, especially those held for prolonged periods of time.”119 Texas’ ban on contact
visits and the refusal to allow inmates to contact family members or attorneys via telephone
is a clear violation of this standard. Under Article 7 of the ICCPR, incarcerated individuals are
entitled to protection from torture and “cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment.”120 They have a
further right to be “treated with humanity and with respect for the inherent dignity of the human
113	 An independent expert appointed by the UN Human Rights Council.
114	 Solitary confinement should be banned in most cases, UN expert says, UN News Centre (Oct. 18, 2011), http://www.un.org/apps/news/
story.asp?NewsID=40097#.WCyEc3eZPVo.
115	 Id.
116	 Response by Jorge Alfredo Salinas to Human Rights Clinic questionnaire.
117	 United Nations, Special Rapporteur on torture and other cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment, Interim report of the
Special Rapporteur on torture and other cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment, A/68/295 ¶61 (Aug. 9, 2013), available
at undocs.org/A/68/295.
118	 United Nations, Convention Against Torture and Other Cruel, Inhuman or Degrading Treatment or Punishment, Optional Protocol,
Report on the visit of the Subcommittee on Prevention of Torture and Other Cruel, Inhuman or Degrading Treatment or Punishment to the
Republic of Paraguay, (Jun. 7, 2010).
119	 United Nations, Secretary-General Note, Torture and other cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment, A/66/268 ¶53 (Aug.
5, 2011) available at undocs.org/A/66/268.
120	 International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, art. 7.

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person.”121
Similarly, the American Declaration on the Rights and Duties of Man states that every individual
deprived of his liberty has the right to humane treatment during his incarceration,122 as well as
the right not to receive cruel, infamous or unusual punishment.123 For those OAS states which are
not party to the American Convention on Human Rights,124 the American Declaration is the source
of international obligation related to the OAS Charter.125 The U.S. is bound by way of customary
international law. International human rights bodies have therefore found the U.S. to be in violation
of the Declaration in terms of capital punishment on multiple occasions, with many cases originating
in Texas. In the case of Soering v United Kingdom,126 the European Court of Human Rights held that
that the conditions of prolonged detention on death row (in Virginia) constituted “inhuman and
degrading treatment” contrary to Article 3 of the European Convention on Human Rights. This
included the use of prolonged solitary confinement, a practice which Virginia officials—much like
their Texan counterparts—have repeatedly stated is required for ensuring prison safety.127
Under Rule 14 of the Mandela Rules, there should be sufficient light to enable the detainee to
work or read, and windows so constructed as to allow airflow whether or not artificial ventilation
is provided.128 The Special Rapporteur on Torture has specifically noted that the presence of
windows and light is of critical importance to ensuring the standard, adequate treatment of
inmates in solitary confinement.129 As has been established, Texas continues to fall below this
standard. The Mandela Rules completely prohibit “all cruel, inhuman or degrading punishments”,
referencing corporal punishment and placement in a dark cell.130 Presumptively, this would include
the type of prolonged solitary confinement to which Texas inmates are subjected. Also included
are rules relating to the right to education, physical and mental health care, and access to religious
services. The UN and other international bodies have brought attention to the conditions of death
row prisons in the U.S. on several occasions, and have issued both criticisms of the practice and
recommendations for reform and improvement.
b.

International criticisms and recommendations regarding U.S. and Texas practices

T he mandatory and abusive use of solitary confinement in Texas and in other states has
generated a long and consistent list of criticisms from a variety of international human rights

121	
122	
123	
124	
125	
126	
127	

128	
129	
130	

International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, art. 10.
American Declaration on the Rights and Duties of Man art. XXV.
Id., art. XXVI.
The U.S. has not ratified the Convention and is therefore not a party.
IACHR, Report No. 11/15, Case 12.833, Merits (Publication), Felix Rocha Diaz, United States, March 23, 2015, OEA/Ser.L./V/II.154, doc.
5 ¶ 58.
Soering v. United Kingdom, 161 Eur. Ct. H.R. (1989).
Matt Zapotosky, Lawsuit threatens to upend solitary confinement on Va.’s death row, Washington Post, June 2015. Available at: https://
www.washingtonpost.com/local/crime/lawsuit-threatens-to-upend-solitary-confinement-on-vas-death-row/2015/06/06/bfd949ba049f-11e5-8bda-c7b4e9a8f7ac_story.html
Mandela Rules, supra note 49, at rule 14.
United Nations, Secretary General Note, Torture and other cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment, supra note 119.
Mandela Rules, supra note 49, at rule 43.

	

27

mechanisms. The United Nations Working Group on Arbitrary Detention131 recently published a
preliminary observation on arbitrary detention in the United States, where the members identified
a myriad of issues within the criminal justice system. The Working Group, which visited Texas
among other states, cited specific concern with the rate of use of solitary confinement, observing
that the practice is widespread and of prolonged duration in some instances.132 The United Nations
Human Rights Committee133 has repeatedly raised issues with the tendency of the U.S. “to hold
detainees in prolonged cellular confinement, and to allow them out-of-cell recreation for only five
hours per week, in general conditions of strict regimentation in a depersonalized environment.”134
The Human Rights Committee recommended that the United States “scrutinize conditions of
detention in prisons, in particular in
maximum security prisons, with a view
to guaranteeing that persons deprived
of their liberty be treated in accordance
with the requirements of Article 10 of the
[ICCPR] and the [Mandela Rules].”135 In its
concluding observations on the fourth report
of the U.S., the Human Rights Committee
identified particular concerns with the
use of prolonged solitary confinement in
prisons, and with poor conditions in death-

IACHR, Hearings: “Case 12.644 – José Medellín Rojas (MC
317/06), Rubén Ramírez Cárdenas (MC 328/06) and Humberto Leal García (MC 349/06)” (JUAN MANUEL HERRERA - OAS/OEA)

row facilities, recommending that the U.S.
should “impose strict limits on the use of solitary confinement,” including abolishing the practice
for prisoners with severe mental illness, and should “bring the detention conditions of prisoners
on death row into line with international standards.”136 Further, the UN Committee Against
Torture137 has expressed concern over the extensive use of solitary confinement in the United
States, concluding that complete solitary isolation of 22 to 23 hours per day violates Article 16 of
the Convention Against Torture.138
The Inter-American Commission on Human Rights (IACHR), which is responsible for hearing cases
and issuing decisions regarding the implementation of human rights in the Americas—including the
U.S.—has similarly dealt with the issue of death row conditions in the United States, and particularly

131	 Established by the UN Human Rights Commission to investigate cases of deprivation of liberty imposed arbitrarily or otherwise
inconsistently with the relevant international standards.
132	 United Nations, Human Rights Committee, Working Group on Arbitrary Detention: Preliminary Findings from its visit to the
United States of America (11-24 October 2016). Available at: http://www.ohchr.org/EN/NewsEvents/Pages/DisplayNews.
aspx?NewsID=20746&LangID=E
133	 The U.N. Human Rights Committee is an independent expert body charged with monitoring compliance by states with the ICCPR.
134	 United Nations, Human Rights Committee, Concluding observations of the Human Rights Committee, CCPR/C/USA/CO/3/Rev.1 ¶ 32
(Dec. 18, 2006), available at undocs.org/CCPR/C/USA/CO/3/Rev.1.
135	 Id.
136	 United Nations, Human Rights Committee, Concluding observations on the fourth periodic report of the United States of America,
CCPR/C/USA/CO/4 ¶ 20 (23 April 2014), available at undocs.org/ CCPR/C/USA/CO/4.
137	 An independent expert body charged with monitoring implementation of the Convention against Torture and Other Cruel, Inhuman or
Degrading Treatment or Punishment by its State parties.
138	 Convention against Torture, supra note 110.

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in Texas.139 In multiple cases the IACHR has opined that the use of solitary confinement should be
reserved for exceptional circumstances, for the shortest amount of time possible, and as a measure of
last resort.140 In the case of Hilaire, Constantine and Benjamin et al. v. Trinidad and Tobago, the InterAmerican Court of Human Rights established that prolonged solitary confinement constituted a
failure to ensure “respect for the inherent dignity of the human person, regardless of the circumstance,
and the right not to be subjected to cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment.”141
This is important precedent as the
Commission tends to follow the
standards developed by the InterAmerican Court. Specifically, the
IACHR has heard numerous cases
related to the conditions of death
row in Texas. In the case of Felix
Rocha Diaz, the Commission found
that the conditions on death row
in

Texas—including

prolonged

solitary confinement—constituted
inhumane treatment, concluding
(THE TEXAS OBSERVER)

that the U.S. was imposing “cruel,
infamous and unusual punishment”

in violation of Articles XXV and XXVI of the American Declaration.142 Conditions referred to by the
petitioners included the small, cramped cells holding only a sink, toilet and thirty-inch-wide bunk,
as well as concerns over proper nutrition. Petitioners contended that breakfast is served at 3:00 am,
meaning that inmates are forced to choose between sleeping through the night and missing a meal,
or waking up in the middle of the night and suffering the physical and psychological consequences
of sleep deprivation. As well as the complete lack of physical contact with family members, the
petitioners submitted that friends and family are permitted only to write letters; the inmates’ attorney
is the only person which they may receive phone calls from. Concern with disciplinary action within
the prison was argued, with petitioners submitting that such action is often imposed for minor
infractions such as possession of an extra bar of soap. Often there appears to be no reason at all.
In light of these issues, and in conjunction with the severely detrimental effects which prolonged
solitary confinement has on inmates, the Commission strongly recommended that the U.S. review its
laws and practices related to solitary confinement in order to comply with international standards. It
also recommended that the State suspend the utilization of solitary confinement as a court-imposed
sentence in capital cases 143 In a similar case, the Commission stated the same, concluding that the
139	 IACHR, Report No. 90/09, Case 12.644, Merits (Publication) Medellín, Ramírez Cárdenas and Leal García, United States, ¶ 60, Aug. 7,
2009.
140	IACHR, Report on the human rights of persons deprived of liberty in the Americas, OEA/Ser.L/V/II, doc. 64 ¶ 319, 407-418, Dec. 31, 2011.
141	 Case of Hilaire, Constantine and Benjamin et al. v. Trinidad and Tobago, Merits, Reparations, and Costs, Judgment, Inter-Am. Ct. H.R., (ser.
C) No. 94, ¶ 154-156 (June 21, 2002).
142	 American Declaration on the Rights and Duties of Man, art. XXV, XXVI.
143	 IACHR, Report No. 11/15, Case 12.833, Merits (Publication), Felix Rocha Diaz, United States, OEA/Ser.L/V/II.154, doc. 5 ¶ 107, March 23,
2015.

	

29

measures employed by the state of Texas—such as the prohibition of any physical contact with
family members and attorneys—were “disproportionate, illegitimate and unnecessary.”144
In 2014, the Commission heard a case in which the petitioner argued that the conditions on Texas’s
death row were harsher and more extreme than those found anywhere else in the country.145 In
addition to each of the issues raised in the Rocha case, it was alleged that prisoners with disciplinary
issues, which usually include inmates with mental illness, were allowed outside of their cells for
only 3-4 hours per week146, rather than the minimum one hour per day as permitted by TDCJ.
Additionally, it was alleged that inmates receive no educational or occupational training, and that
inmates with disciplinary problems are often deprived of their radios, effectively cutting off their
connection with outside world completely.147 The U.S. argued that “conditions of confinement in
death row are difficult but reasonable under the circumstances and do not constitute cruel and
unusual punishment.” In terms of solitary confinement, the U.S. argued that an inmate on death
row is provided with the highest level of internationally recognized protection due to the State’s
appeals process. On this point, the U.S. alleges that an inmate’s full exercise of his legal right to
appeal avenues is the reason an inmate spends so long on death row which, according to the U.S.,
means “he should not then claim that the conditions of confinement during that delay are cruel,
infamous, or unusual punishment.”148 Again, the Commission found the conditions of death row in
Texas to be human rights abuses in violation of the American Declaration on the Rights and Duties
of Men. Specifically, the IACHR stated that to be in line with international human rights standards,
those deprived of liberty on death row should not be subjected to solitary confinement as a regular
condition of imprisonment. Solitary confinement, they reiterated, should be imposed only in
exceptional circumstances and solely as a disciplinary punishment in those instances and under
the same conditions in which these measures apply to the rest of the inmates.149 The Commission
went on to state that “the conditions of imprisonment of persons sentenced to death must meet
the same international norms and standards that apply in general to persons deprived of liberty…
regardless of the nature of the conduct for which the person in question has been deprived of his
liberty.”150 The Commission concluded that by imposing prolonged solitary confinement on an
inmate, “the United States is subjecting him to inhumane treatment during his incarceration and
imposing cruel, infamous and unusual punishment, in violation of Articles XXV and XXVI of the
American Declaration.” The Commission further cited the Principles and Best Practices on the
Protection of Persons Deprived of Liberty in the Americas:
Solitary confinement shall only be permitted as a disposition of last resort and for a strictly
limited time, when it is evident that it is necessary to ensure legitimate interests relating to the

144	 IACHR, Report No. 52/13, Cases 11.575, 12.333, & 12.341, Lackey et al., United States, ¶ 236 (2013).
145	 IACHR, Report No. 44/14, Case 12.873, Merits (Publication) Edgar Tamayo Arias, United States, OEA/Ser.L./V/II.151, doc. 9 ¶ 39, July 17,
2014.
146	 Id., ¶ 37
147	 Id.
148	 Id., ¶ 66
149	 Id., ¶ 172
150	 Id., ¶181

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institution’s internal security, and to protect fundamental rights, such as the right to life and
integrity of persons deprived of liberty or the personnel.”151

The Commission condemned the practice of holding a prisoner in prolonged solitary
confinement solely because he had been sentenced to death, along with the general prohibition
on physical contact, as “disproportionate, illegitimate and unnecessary,”152 and recommended that
Texas should review its laws, procedures and practices to ensure that solitary confinement is not
imposed as a court-ordered sentence but is reserved for “only the most exceptional circumstances.”
The Commission further recommended that Texas reinstate contact visits for death row inmates
and ensure “access to various programs and activities.”153
vi.

ACCESS TO RELIGIOUS SERVICES AND MATERIALS

T he right to free exercise of religion is a fundamental right both under the U.S. Constitution154
and international law.155 The Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act, which applies
to state prison systems, also guarantees heightened protection of religious practice within prison
systems.156 In addition to general condition standards, international customary law also addresses
a right to physical safety and health care. The American Declaration of the Rights and Duties of
Man asserts that “[e]very person has the right freely to profess a religious faith, and to manifest
and practice it both in public and in private.”157 Furthermore, the International Covenant on Civil
and Political Rights states:
1.	 Everyone shall have the right to freedom of thought, conscience and religion. This right
shall include freedom to have or to adopt a religion or belief of his choice, and freedom,
either individually or in community with others and in public or private, to manifest his
religion or belief in worship, observance, practice and teaching.
2.	 No one shall be subject to coercion which would impair his freedom to have or to adopt a
religion or belief of his choice.
3.	 Freedom to manifest one’s religion or beliefs may be subject only to such limitations as are
prescribed by law and are necessary to protect public safety, order, health, or morals or the
fundamental rights and freedoms of others158
Despite these protections, death row inmates receive only sporadic access to religious services
and advisors.

151	
152	
153	
154	
155	
156	
157	
158	

IACHR Principles and Best Practices, supra note 35 at principle XXII (3).
Edgar Tamayo Arias, supra note 145, ¶ 182.
Id., ¶ 194.
U.S. Const. amend. I.
ICCPR, art. 18
A Death Before Dying, supra note 20.
American Declaration of the Rights and Duties of Man, art. III.
International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, art. 18.

	

31

Olsen, a former TDCJ death row inmate, described the chaplain’s office as “a joke,” explaining
that religious services were essentially non-existent.159 Another inmate reiterated the lack of
services, stating that the extent of access to religious reading material was Bibles that could be
requested from the prison chaplain.160 One inmate who had spent time on death row when it
was housed in the Ellis Unit, and after the move to Polunsky, compared his experiences before
and after 1999, emphasizing that when at the Ellis Unit, religious services for a variety of
religions were common.161 Following the move to Polunsky, however, they all stopped.162 While
one inmate stated that the inmates were allowed to talk to religious volunteers who took the
time to visit,163 another inmate stated that these volunteer ministers would usually only come
around during the holiday season.164 Several other inmates claimed that the only access to
religious services was through outside persons mailing in religious materials.165
“The only access you received to any material was what TDCI allowed to come in through the
mail…You were there simply to exist until your execution arrived. Your ability to receive
anything depended on the support you had from the outside or what a neighbor may give you.”
— Kenneth Foster, a former death row inmate166

Inmates who belonged to religions other than Christianity seemingly faced even greater barriers
to religious services or materials, with Anthony Pierce explaining that due to his Islamic faith, he
was not provided with any religious materials.167 According to Pierce, Christian inmates were given
priority, creating “a harsh environment regarding the religious needs of the Muslim community.”
Other inmates’ accounts confirm Pierce’s remonstrance. Gene Hathorn, who spent more than a
decade on Texas’ death row, has detailed that although an inmate may send a request to the
Chaplain, his Hindu faith meant that the Chaplain had no materials relevant to his beliefs.168
In a joint petition to TDCJ in 2014, several organizations signed a letter urging some systematic
changes be made to death row procedures.169 Prior to the move to the Polunsky Unit, male
death row inmates participated regularly in communal religious services. One of the suggested
revisions is the resumption of these community services.170 Included in the list of support letters
is a message from the Catholic Diocese of Beaumont, which expressed concern that there are
often serious impairments to Chaplains being allowed to visit inmates on death row because of

159	
160	
161	
162	
163	
164	
165	
166	
167	

Response by Christian Olsen to Human Rights Clinic questionnaire.
Response by Adrian Estrada to Human Rights Clinic questionnaire.
Response by Deryl Wayne Madison to Human Rights Clinic questionnaire.
Id.
Response by Guy Alexander to Human Rights Clinic questionnaire.
Response by Jorge Alfredo Salinas to Human Rights Clinic questionnaire.
Responses by Carl Lee Brooks Jr., Mark S. Arthur and Miguel Angel Martinez to Human Rights Clinic questionnaire.
Response by Kenneth Foster to Human Rights Clinic questionnaire.
Responses by Anthony Pierce, Whitney Lee Reeves, David Allen Gardner, Nanon Williams, Christian Olsen, Miguel Angel Martinez, Deryl
Madison, Gene Hathorn, Fernando Garcia, Adrian Estrada and David DeBlanc to Human Rights Clinic questionnaire.
168	 Response by Gene Hathorn to Human Rights Clinic questionnaire.
169	 Letter from American Civil Liberties Union of Texas, Texas Civil Rights Project, Texas Coalition to Abolish the Death Penalty, Texas
Criminal Justice Coalition, Texas Defender Service and Texas Impact, to Brad Livingston, Exec. Director, Texas Department of Criminal
Justice (Jan. 27, 2014) (on file with the Human Rights Clinic).
170	 Id.

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a lack of available guards to escort the visiting Chaplains and facilitate the visit.171 The Diocese
proposed that a Certified Volunteer Chaplain be screened and approved by TDCJ and allowed
to visit without the need for a prison guard escort.172 This proposal directly reflects one inmate’s
concern that the structure at TDCJ “isn’t designed to create access” for volunteers.173

171	 Letter from Deacon Thomas Ewing, Jr., Director, Office of Criminal Justice, Catholic Diocese of Beaumont, to Texas Department of
Criminal Justice (Jan. 21, 2014) (on file with the Human Rights Clinic).
172	 Id.
173	 Response by Nanon Williams to Human Rights Clinic questionnaire.

	

33

REPEATED CALLS UP TO EXECUTION

A

s will be discussed in detail below , statutory deficiencies present in

Texas’

Code of Criminal Procedures force death row inmates to prepare for execution on
multiple occasions, causing legal difficulties and lasting psychological damage for
the inmates. Texas’ practice of scheduling inmates for multiple execution dates is
problematic under international human rights standards, and has even garnered

attention in international courts. Under the ICCPR, persons deprived of liberty are entitled to
protection from torture and “cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment,”174 as well as a guarantee they
will be “treated with humanity and with respect for the inherent dignity of the human person.”175 To
best address the problem, it is essential to understand how the scheduling of executions operates.
i.

STATUTORY DEFICIENCIES

I n addition to living in torturous perpetual solitary confinement, inmates are forced to prepare
for execution multiple times because of the statutory allowances in Texas’ execution scheduling
process. According to Texas’ Code of Criminal Procedure, there is no prohibition on scheduling an
inmate for execution when post-conviction measures are still pending, including federal habeas
petitions.176 Another major flaw in Texas’ procedural rule is that an inmate’s defense attorney
is not required to be notified of scheduling requests for executions.177 In fact, it is specified that
defense counsel is not required to be notified of an execution date until after it is set.178 This leads
to executions being scheduled prematurely, unnecessarily burdening inmates by forcing them to
prepare for execution multiple times.
In fact, last-minute stays of execution can fairly be described as a core element of the capital
punishment system. Media headlines like “Texas inmate who didn’t kill anyone gets stay of
execution,”180 “Texas hit man gets second stay of execution,”181 “Houston cop killer Haynes granted
stay of execution,”182 “Texas Court of Criminal Appeals stays execution of Robert Jennings,” and
“Prison Guard’s Convicted Killer Wins Another Execution Stay”183 are common. Last minute stays
of execution are so routinely expected that the Texas statute mandates all executions be scheduled
174	
175	
176	
177	
178	
179	
180	

ICCPR art. 7.
ICCPR art. 10.
Texas Code of Crim. Pro. 43.141.
Texas Code of Crim. Pro. 43.141(b-1).
Texas Code of Crim. Pro. 43.141(b-1).
McCullough & Hasson, supra note 1.
Khushbu Shah and Polo Sandoval, Texas Inmate Who Didn’t Kill Anyone Gets Stay of Execution, CNN (Aug. 19, 2016), http://www.cnn.
com/2016/08/19/us/texas-execution-jeff-wood/.
181	 Texas hit man gets second stay of execution, Fox News (Aug. 27, 2016), http://www.foxnews.com/us/2016/08/27/texas-hit-man-getssecond-stay-execution.html.
182	 Allan Turner, Houston cop killer Haynes granted stay of execution, Houston Chronicle (Jan. 27, 2016), http://www.chron.com/news/
houston-texas/houston/article/Houston-cop-killer-Haynes-granted-stay-of-3960930.php.
183	 Madeline Conway, Prison Guard’s Convicted Killer Wins Another Execution Stay, Texas Tribune (Aug. 11, 2016), https://www.texastribune.
org/2016/08/11/death-row-inmate-issued-another-stay-after-dna-tes/.

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As of December 2016, these nine inmates have scheduled execution dates. From left to right: James Eugene Bigby,
Tilon Lashon Carter, Kosoul Chanthakoummane, Terry Darnell Edwards, Steven L. Long, John Henry Ramirez, Rolando
Ruiz, Paul David Storey, and Christopher Chubasco Wilkins. (THE TEXAS TRIBUNE) 179

after 6p.m. to accommodate them.184 While these stays in execution come as a result of legitimate
and successful legal challenges, the process of preparing for execution can be quite grueling on the
psychological well-being of the inmates and their families.
Approximately 40% of the inmates surveyed for this report stated that they had been scheduled
for execution at least once, and several inmates had been forced to prepare for execution multiple
times.185
“[P]risoners who are within 24 hours of being executed are moved to a special cell where
they will have no contact with other prisoners.”186 Expert witness psychiatrists have described
the process as a “roller coaster: first they prepare for imminent death, then they put hope in an
appeal.”187 The Supreme Court itself has said that awaiting an execution date is “one of the most
horrible feelings to which [a capitally sentenced inmate] can be subjected.”188 Some technical
aspects of the process of preparation include choosing up to five family members and friends
who will be present at the execution,189 instructing family members that they must request their
body within 48 hours after execution to bury,190 and last-minute meetings with spiritual advisors,
relatives, and attorneys.191 Even on the day of their execution, Texas exercises its cruelty and
inhumanity by refusing inmates physical contact with their lawyer or family members.192
184	
185	
186	
187	
188	
189	
190	
191	
192	

Texas Rules of Crim. Pro. 43.14(a).
Responses by David Allen Gardner, Walter Bell, Jr., Charles Dean Hood, and Jose Briseno to Human Rights Clinic questionnaire.
Kupers report, supra note 94 at 8.
Id.
Ruiz v. Texas, No. 16-7792, at 1 (Mar. 7, 2017) (Breyer, J., dissenting) (citing In re Medley, 134 U. S. 160, 172 (1890)).
Texas Rules of Crim. Pro. 43.20.
Texas Rules of Crim. Pro. 43.25.
Texas Rules of Crim. Pro. 43.17.
IACHR, Report No. 133/11, Petition 259-11, Felix Rocha Diaz, United States ¶ 13 (2011).

	

35

CASE STUDY

Rolando Ruiz
Rolando Ruiz, a man convicted of capital murder in Bexar County,
Texas, spent over 20 years on death row in Texas, 18 of which he spent
in the Polunsky Unit.193 Ruiz’s case was stayed twice, once in 2007,
and again just recently in 2016.194 In 2007, Ruiz’s execution was stayed
mere minutes before the execution was scheduled to begin.195
In regards to his mental process of preparation for execution, Ruiz
described the grueling experience as follows,

SAN ANTONIO EXPRESS NEWS

“Driving to Huntsville where the death chamber is, I looked out the window at every tree, house,
car, dog, cat, building, absolutely everything and anything that had to do with freeworld life—
seeing things I never saw from my tiny cell on death row. Doing so brought so many overwhelming
thoughts, feelings, and emotions…I experienced a tremendous sense of relief and gratitude to
God when my execution was stayed, which I didn’t learn until the night of my scheduled execution.
But the experiences caused so much turmoil for me—not only because I had to personally come
to terms with what I thought would be my death, but also because I watched what my family and
friends went through. It was difficult to work through my own fear and feelings about dying, and
it took a lot of time and prayer…I felt so overwhelmed as I watched my mother going through the
pain of losing her one and only child.” 196

Rolando Ruiz was executed on March 7, 2017. 197

One inmate, Gene Hathorn, who came within 13 hours of execution, described the experience
as follows:
	
“I just tried to get mentally ready…if you’re not ready there’s nothing you can do about it, anyway.
As for what [the state did], [they] put me under death watch to make sure I didn’t deprive them of
the killing right. [I was asked questions like what I wanted done with my body, what color clothes
I wanted to be killed in, what I wanted for my last meal…It was surreal, because on an elemental
level I knew that humans aren’t supposed to be in the ‘business’ of killing other humans.”198

In addition to statutory deficiencies, inadequate representation for defendants in capital cases is a
major contributing factor to the frequency of last-minute stays of execution and multiple execution
193	 Bruce Selcraig, Texas appellate court issues a stay of execution for San Antonio hit man, San Antonio Express News (Aug. 27, 2016),
http://www.expressnews.com/news/local/article/Texas-appellate-court-issues-a-stay-of-execution-9188516.php.
194	 Id.
195	 Brief for Applicant, Ex parte Ruiz, at 77 (Tex. Crim. App. 2016).
196	 Kupers report, supra note 94 at 16-17.
197	 Jolie McCullough, Texas executes triggerman in San Antonio murder-for-hire case, Texas Tribune (Mar. 7, 2017), https://www.texastribune.
org/2017/03/07/texas-set-execute-triggerman-san-antonio-murder-hire-case/.
198	 Response by Gene Hathorn to Human Rights Clinic questionnaire.

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dates. Structural problems with the way capital cases are assigned to defense attorneys, along with
a lack of dedicated funding, results in a lack of adequate counsel for many capital defendants. In
some cases, this has led to shockingly ineffective representation for defendants, for example an
attorney who routinely slept during his clients’ trials.199 While theoretically an individual’s appeal
options should have been fully exhausted by the time an execution date is set, in practice the defense
attorney has often failed to raise important legal or factual issues.200 While some individuals receive
legal assistance from specialized organizations, often by the time these advocates take the case, an
execution date has already been set and a last-minute stay is now the client’s best hope.
iii.

LASTING PSYCHOLOGICAL DAMAGE

F or inmates who have prepared for execution, the process leaves lasting psychological damage.
When describing how preparing for his execution affected him, one inmate said,
“I was in the mindset of this is it…how am I going to react? Will I be able to look people in the
eye and say last words? How was this going to affect my family? Part of me was scared and part
of me wanted to go…I still think about it.”201
Another inmate said that an approaching execution date shook him to his core. “It made me feel
that this country thought of me as less than human. It made me sad to see that I was where I was.”202
A third inmate pointed out that although the experience of preparing for execution and receiving a
last minute stay is intensely difficult, “[t]hey never offer any psychological help after being almost on
the verge of being pronounced being told you are going to die by injection.”203
iv.

INTERNATIONAL HUMAN RIGHTS CRITICISM OF TEXAS’ PRACTICES

O ver several decades , advocates have brought Texas death penalty cases before the IACHR
on a regular basis. While the majority of these cases focus on procedural deficiencies, advocates
frequently raised concerns about prison conditions, and some pointed to the cruel situation of
death row inmates in Texas being forced to prematurely, and in some cases repeatedly, prepare
themselves for the process of execution.
In a 2013 IACHR case, advocates for Clarence Allen Lackey, a Texas death row inmate, emphasized
to the Commission his multiple execution dates, arguing “that the alleged victim was forced to
prepare himself for his imminent execution on five different occasions; two of his executions were
stayed just hours before execution time.”204 Despite precautionary measures issued in his case by
the IAHCR, Lackey was eventually executed on May 20, 1997 after an unsuccessful habeas corpus
petition205 and almost 20 years on death row.206 While not ruling on the claim regarding the multiple
199	
200	
201	
202	
203	
204	
205	
206	

Burdine v. Johnson 262 F.3d 336, 341 (5th Cir. 2001).
Lethally Deficient, supra note 17.
Response by Deryl Wayne Madison to Human Rights Clinic questionnaire.
Response by Tony Nixon to Human Rights Clinic questionnaire.
Response by David DeBlanc to Human Rights Clinic questionnaire.
Lackey et al. v. U.S., supra note 144 at ¶ 15.
Id. at ¶ 174.
Id. at ¶ 14.

	

37

THE NEW YORK TIMES

CASE STUDY

Kenneth E. Foster, Jr.
Kenneth E. Foster, Jr. was convicted in 1996 as a conspirator to a murder.207 Because Foster was
sentenced to death despite the fact that he did not actually commit the murder in question, his
scheduled execution sparked a great deal of protest and community activism, including a dedicated
“Free Kenneth” website208 and numerous protests.209 Foster received a rare commutation by
Governor Rick Perry in 2007, a decision that came just hours before he was slated to be executed,
and is now serving a life sentence with TDCJ.210 Foster described the experience in-depth, recalling,
“I was given an execution date…in May 2007. From that point I was placed in the death watch
housing which is comprised [sic] of nothing but inmates with pending execution dates. …There’s
the change in scenery. There’s the paperwork the state needs for the disposal of your property
and body. There’s the visits 3 days before your execution date with your family. There’s the talks
you share with the guys around you. From May-August 30th my days were spent campaigning.
I was able to build an international movement that saved my life…That paved the way for my
sentence to be commuted by Governor Perry…[The experience] created a psychological
problem later that became known as PTSD….It created a lot of rage inside me that I now use to
keep fighting. It also created a lot of sadness in knowing how many went through that and still do.
It’s a stain that sits on the soul daily [sic]…I’m still affected to this day. I’m still moving like I have
an execution date. Because I do. I do because I am apart of humanity and as long as the death
penalty exist[s] then we all have execution dates.” 211

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dates of execution, the IACHR ruled that the U.S. government had violated his “right to life, liberty
and personal security, protected under Article I of the American Declaration, to the detriment of
Clarence Allen Lackey…by virtue of its failure to comply with the precautionary measures that the
IACHR granted for the alleged victims.” 212 The Commission recommended the Texas government
pay reparations to Lackey’s family.213
Petitioners in a 2003 IAHCR decision in
the case of Shaka Sankofa, another Texas
death row inmate who was ultimately
executed in 2000 after 19 years on death
row and multiple delays,214 noted that
“a condemned person suffers ‘undue
psychological torture’ awaiting execution
of a death sentence.”215 Here, while the
Commission again avoided ruling on
Texas’ execution chamber at the Wallis Unit in Huntsville, Texas.
(THE NEW YORK TIMES)

the multiple delays, it determined that
“the State is responsible for violations of
Articles XVIII and XXVI of the American

Declaration in the trial, conviction and sentencing to death of Shaka Sankofa…by executing Mr.
Sankofa based upon these criminal proceedings, the State is responsible for a violation of Mr.
Sankofa’s fundamental right to life under Article I of the American Declaration”216 The Commission
also ruled that Mr. Sankofa’s family was entitled to reparations, including compensation.217

207	 Ralph Blumenthal, Governor Commutes Sentence in Texas, NY Times (Aug. 31, 2007), http://www.nytimes.com/2007/08/31/
us/31execute.html.
208	 Free Kenneth, http://www.freekenneth.com (last visited Mar. 29, 2017).
209	 Kenneth Foster Execution Protest, Austin Chronicle, http://www.austinchronicle.com/calendar/events/event-503667/.
210	Blumenthal, supra note 207.
211	 Response by Kenneth E. Foster, Jr. to Human Rights Clinic questionnaire.
212	 Id. at ¶ 250.
213	 Id. at ¶ 1.
214	 IACHR, Report No. 97/03, Case 11.193, Merits (Publication), Shaka Sankofa, United States, ¶ 1, Dec. 29, 2003.
215	 Id. at ¶ 15.
216	 Id. at ¶ 60.
217	 Id. at ¶ 1.

	

39

ACCESS TO PHYSICAL & MENTAL HEALTH CARE

T

he

ICCPR’ s protection of a detained person ’ s “ inherent dignity ” 218

includes the requirement that all prisoners be treated with humanity.219 There is
a recognized international standard of a right to medical care, as expressed in
the American Declaration of the Rights and Duties and Man, which states, “Every
person has the right to the preservation of his health through sanitary and social

measures relating to food, clothing, housing and medical care, to the extent permitted by public
and community resources.”220 According to the Mandela Rules, the provision of health care is a
responsibility of the State,221 mandating that “[e]very prison shall have in place a health-care
service tasked with evaluating, promoting, protecting and improving the physical and mental
health of prisoners, paying particular attention to prisoners with special health-care needs or
with health issues that hamper their rehabilitation.”222 State law also exists regulating access to
health care.223 While some former death row inmates surveyed expressed no qualms about their
experience of seeking medical care,224 testimony from others who have spent time on death row
indicate physical and psychological health care may be severely lacking. One inmate characterized
the situation succinctly, calling health care on death row a “joke.”225
The Health Services Division of the TDCJ’s official statement reads:
It is the mission of the Health Services Division to work with health care contractors and the
Correctional Managed Health Care Committee (CMHCC) to ensure health care services are
provided to incarcerated offenders in the custody of TDCJ. The Health Services Division has
statutory authority (state law) to ensure access to care, monitor quality of care, investigate
medical grievances, and conduct operational review audits of health care services at TDCJ
facilities.226

Divisions charged with ensuring access to medical care within the Health Services Division
include the Office of Health Services Monitoring, the Office of Professional Standards, the Office
of Health Services Liaison, the TDCJ Office of Public Health, and the Office of Mental Health
Monitoring and Liaison.227

218	
219	
220	
221	
222	
223	
224	
225	
226	
227	

See also, Convention Against Torture, supra note 110, at preamble.
International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, art. 10.
American Declaration of the Rights and Duties and Man, art. XI.
Mandela Rules, supra note 49, at r. 24.
Id. at r. 25.
Health Services Division, Texas Department of Criminal Justice, http://tdcj.state.tx.us/divisions/hs/index.html
Responses by David Deblanc, Tony Nixon, Kenneth Foster, and Walter Bell Jr. to Human Rights Clinic questionnaire.
Response by Anthony Pierce to Human Rights Clinic questionnaire.
Health Services Division, supra note 223.
Id.

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D E S I G N E D T O B R E A K Y O U : H U M A N R I G H T S V I O L AT I O N S O N T E X A S ’ D E AT H R O W

In a “how-to” guide for requesting medical care in Texas prisons, there are four steps: 228
1.	 Place a sick call to request medical attention.
2.	 If your call is not answered within 48 hours, make an I-60 request.
3.	 If no action has been taken still, file a step 1 and 2 grievance.
4.	 If still no action is taken, contact the TDCJ Health Services directly.229
While these steps are useful for an inmate housed in a typical unit, death row inmates who
are housed in permanent solitary confinement are not always able to effectively self-advocate,
particularly those who suffer from mental health issues. One former inmate stated that he
sometimes required outside help to secure needed health care, as channels within the prison were
insufficient.230 Another former resident of death row complained that because it typically took
2-3 days for staff to respond to “sick call” slips, inmates do not receive care for mental health
emergencies in a timely manner. If a mental health emergency arises, inmates are “forced to deal
with the problem(s) on our own, and 2-3 days later we’ll be able to go tell a psych about what we
went through/experienced.”231
DeWayne Brown, the exonerated individual discussed in detail above, shed light on the hurdles
death row inmates must navigate in order to access medical attention. Brown explained that in
order to get medical attention, inmates fill out “sick cards,” which are—theoretically at least—
picked up by the guards and passed on to the medical team.232 However, because inmates are
completely dependent on the guards to communicate medical needs, a hostile officer could obstruct
or delay inmates’ access to needed care.233 Brown said it was “common” for guards to forget to
bring inmates the requested cards, and if a guard “didn’t like” an inmate, or if the inmate had had
previous negative incidents with the guard, that inmate would have an impossibly difficult time
passing on their request.234
“[During a lockdown,] I was denied my medication, much of which is for diabetes and heart
disease, for eleven straight days. I would ask each nurse or medical technician who came
by about my medicine and they would say, ‘Okay, I’ll go check on it,’ then I would not see
them again until they made their rounds on a later day. I asked the officers for help, and was
told by each that, ‘We don’t have any control over Medical. We can’t force them to help you.’”235
— Gene Hathorn, former death row inmate

Other formerly detained men have echoed Brown’s doubts on the adequacy of medical access
228	 Scott Medlock, How to Request Medical Care in TDCJ, Texas Civil Rights Project, http://texaslawhelp.org/files/685E99A9-A3EB6584-CA74-137E0474AE2C/attachments/D820DB72-05AD-3EA5-4A59-14F760EE32B2/428881Request%20TDCJ%20Medical.pdf
229	 Id.
230	 Response by Mariano J. Rosales to Human Rights Clinic questionnaire.
231	 Response by Carl Brooks to Human Rights Clinic questionnaire.
232	 Interview with DeWayne Brown, December 2016.
233	 Id.
234	 Id.
235	 Response by Gene Hathorn to Human Rights Clinic questionnaire.

	

41

on death row. As mentioned above, in his 2012 testimony to the Senate Judiciary Committee,
Anthony Graves, the 138th person to be exonerated from death row in the United States, called the
effectiveness of these divisions into question. Graves described his 18-year ordeal serving time for
a crime he did not commit.236 When describing medical care, Graves testified, “[t]he food lacks the
proper nutrition, because it is either dehydrated when served to you or perhaps you’ll find things
like rat feces or a small piece of broken glass…There is no real medical care. After I was exonerated
and able to go to a doctor, I was told that the food I had been eating caused me to have over 13
percent plaque in my veins, which can cause strokes, heart attacks and aneurysms.”237
Both Brown and Christian Olsen,238 a TDCJ inmate who was formerly housed at the Polunsky Unit,
cited Government Code Section 65.02, “Inmate Fee for Healthcare” as problematic. Essentially, the
statute239 requires that any inmate housed in a TDCJ facility must pay a fee of $100 to seek medical
assistance.240 While medical care is not
denied to indigent inmates, TDCJ does
have policy schemes in place to collect
the fee.241 “If the offender has less than
$5 in their trust fund account, nothing
is taken from the balance, but 50% of
all future deposits are collected and
applied until the total amount is paid.
If the offender has $5 or more in their
trust fund account, 50% of the balance
or $100, whichever is less, is collected
and applied and, if necessary, 50% of
future deposits until the total amount
is paid.”242 According to another TDCJ

Death Row guard stands outside a solitary confinement cell. (DAILY
MAIL)

inmate, Whitney Lee Reeves, the fee
discourages inmates from seeking care as “a concern many inmates discussed was the possibility of
being charged for a medical visit when usually the reason for the medical request went untreated, or
misdiagnosed.” Reeves states that many inmates decided to “suffer through an issue” rather than risk
paying a fee for a medical visit which might or might not offer any relief.243 Paying to see a doctor, yet
receiving no treatment is a very real concern, according to Efrain Perez, who states, “They’re pretty
good at scheduling you to see either a physician or a doctor. And they’re also pretty good at finding
a reason to say you’re OK. If good medicine is available to you out there, it is not for us in here.”244

236	
237	
238	
239	
240	
241	
242	
243	
244	

Anthony Graves testimony, supra note 28.
Id.
Response by Christian Olsen to Human Rights Clinic questionnaire.
Texas Government Code § 501.063 §65.02.
See also Texas Department of Criminal Justice Annual Health Care Services Fee, http://tdcj.state.tx.us/divisions/cmhc/docs/TDCJ_
Annual_Health_Care_Services_Fee_Pamphlet.pdf.
Id.
Id.
Response by Whitney Lee Reeves to Human Rights Clinic questionnaire.
Response by Efrain Perez to Human Rights Clinic questionnaire.

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Olsen also expressed disappointment with his experience seeking medical care for anxiety
and high blood pressure, both of which he developed while on death row.245 According to Olsen,
there were no regularly offered physical check-ups unless an inmate was already on a regimen
of prescription medication, and it could take several days, or even weeks, to get a medical
appointment.246 Similarly, only inmates who were taking psychiatric medication got to meet
regularly with psychiatrists. Olsen began seeing a psychiatrist because he “wanted someone to
talk to,” but the doctor prescribed anti-anxiety medication which caused him to “sleep a lot.”
When Olsen discontinued taking the medication because he could not tolerate its side effects, the
psychiatrist stopped seeing him.247
After reading several inmates’ accounts of their experiences with mental health care on death
row, a distinct theme begins to emerge. It appears that there is a substantial unmet need for
talk therapy, counseling, or some other form of mental health care that is not a one-size-fits-all
pharmaceutical solution. While psychiatric medications are helpful for many people with mental
illness, the fact that inmates like Olsen are forced to choose between taking unwanted medication
and foregoing mental health care entirely is troubling. Several inmates expressed the sentiment that
death row psychiatrists are more interested in sedating the prisoners to keep them compliant until
execution day than in actually helping their clients.248 Miguel Angel Martinez, a former inmate at
the Polunsky Unit, described his experience requesting mental health care as a fruitless task, saying
psychological help was “not offered,” and recalled a time where he requested psychiatric attention
that he never received.249 Martinez continued, “The only psychological or psychiatric attention
that I remember anyone receiving on death row was to be put on psychotropics after someone had
already suffered a complete meltdown or had attempted suicide.”250 Whitney Lee Reeves similarly
stated that “it appears the primary treatment is to give pills that make you sleep all the time. That
doesn’t deal with the problem, you just sleep until you’re executed.”251 Reeves also paints a troubling
picture of medical personnel conducting psychiatric evaluations and interviews on the cell block,
within earshot of other prisoners, writing that the resultant lack of privacy created “barriers to
effective psych treatment.”252 According to John Dewberry, when psychiatrists visit inmates they are
accompanied by two escort officers, “and the officers will gossip about anything you say, so no one
will discuss real problems with them.”253
The lack of adequate mental health care reported by death row inmates is a serious concern
given the documented deleterious effects of solitary confinement on mental health. As discussed
above in the section on death row syndrome, prisoners subjected to prolonged solitary confinement
overwhelmingly tend to suffer psychological trauma. Inmates who entered prison with no pre-

245	
246	
247	
248	
249	
250	
251	
252	
253	

Response by Christian Olsen to Human Rights Clinic questionnaire.
Id.
Id.
Responses by Christian Olsen, Miguel Angel Martinez, Whitney Lee Reeves, Nanon Williams, Anthony Pierce, John Herrin, Gene Hathorn
and Kenneth Foster, Jr to Human Rights Clinic questionnaire.
Response by Miguel Angel Martinez to Human Rights Clinic questionnaire.
Id.
Whitney Lee Reeves survey.
Id.
John Dewberry survey.

	

43

existing mental health disorders tend to develop new conditions, while inmates with pre-existing
mental illness have their conditions exacerbated by the experience of solitary confinement. One
striking example is that of Victor Saldaño, an Argentinian national who developed a mental illness
while on death row in the Polunksky Unit and whose case reached the Inter-American Commission
of Human Rights.254 Saldaño was convicted in 1996 for kidnapping a Texan citizen, and suffered
a dramatic decline in mental health
while on death row. “During the
sentencing trial in 2004, Saldaño
masturbated twice in the presence of
jurors, and prosecutors cited incidents
inside the prison, like smearing feces
and urine on cell walls.” 255
The lack of mental health care is
even more concerning in light of the
fact that some individuals sentenced
to death in Texas would be considered
disqualified for capital punishment
due to intellectual disability in most of
the U.S. Texas’ standards for evaluating

Carl Buntion, 72, is the oldest inmate on Texas’ death row.
(JORGE SANHUEZ-LYON/TEXAS STANDARD)

intellectual disability recently came
under scrutiny and received a strong condemnation by the Supreme Court. In Moore v. Texas, it
held that the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals “failed adequately to inform itself of the medical
community’s diagnostic framework,” and that the Texas’ standard creates “an unacceptable risk
that persons with intellectual disability will be executed” (internal quotations omitted).256
Long periods of solitary confinement have particularly detrimental effects on geriatric inmates.
According to TDCJ any inmate older than 55 is considered geriatric. As such, the aging death row
population is subject to an aggravating factor for health problems, meaning that some inmates
die of natural causes rather than by being executed. In other words, “for those who live just long
enough, there’s more than one way to die on death row”.257
i.

INTERNATIONAL CRITICISM OF TEXAS’ TREATMENT OF INMATES

I n briefings for an IAHCR case for Texas death row inmate Felix Rocha Diaz, “[p]etitioners
state[d] that medical care and nutrition are a major concern for inmates given that breakfast is
served at 3.00am, so inmates must choose between sleeping through the night or skipping the
meal, and many feel hungry after lunch, having to buy additional food at a store in the prison
254	 IACHR, Report No. 38/99, Petition, Victor Saldaño, Argentina, March 11, 1999.
255	 U.S. News, Mother of Argentine on death row in Texas met with Pope Francis, hopes he’ll advocate for son, August 27th, 2015. https://
www.usnews.com/news/world/articles/2015/08/27/argentine-mom-hopes-pope-will-help-get-son-off-death-row.
256	 Moore v. Texas, No. 15-797, slip op. at 14,18 (Mar. 28, 2017).
257	 Joy Diaz, For Elderly Inmates, There’s More Than One Way to Die on Death Row, KUT 90.5 (Jan. 24, 2017), http://kut.org/post/elderlyinmates-theres-more-one-way-die-death-row.

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facility. They also indicate that necessities like soap, shampoo, and deodorant are not provided
by the prison and must also be purchased at the prison store.”258 Here, although it did not make a
ruling specifically addressing inadequate health care, the Commission found Texas in violation of
“the right to life, liberty and personal security (Article I), right to a fair trial (Article XVIII), right
of protection from arbitrary arrest (Article XXV) and right to due process of law (Article XXVI)
guaranteed in the American Declaration…Consequently, should the State carry out the execution
of Mr. Rocha, it would be committing a serious and irreparable violation of the basic right to life
enshrined in Article I of the American Declaration.”259
In another IAHCR case, lack of access to medical care was cited as an example of substandard
conditions. The decision reads,
Mr. Ramírez Cardenas suffers from Nephrotic Syndrome, a type of disease which causes the
kidneys gradually to lose their ability to filter wastes and excess water from the blood. The
petitioners indicate that he has been in and out of John Sealy Hospital in Galveston, Texas
several times due to this disease, which appeared during his stay on death row. Although hospital
policy provides that a patient cannot be removed from the hospital if his attending doctor has not
previously discharged him, Mr. Ramírez Cardenas has been returned to death row without being
discharged by his doctors on more than one occasion.260

While little official information is available about access to psychological care, testimony
from former inmates indicates that many prisoners are suffering in solitary confinement without
proper access to mental health care.261 In the above referenced testimony to the Senate Judiciary
Committee, Anthony Graves noted, “I know a guy who would sit in the middle of the floor, rip his
sheet up, wrap it around himself and light it on fire. Another guy would go out in the recreation
yard, get naked, lie down and urinate all over himself. He would take his feces and smear it all
over his face as though he was in military combat.”262

258	
259	
260	
261	

IACHR, Report No. 11/15, Case 12.833, Felix Rocha Diaz, United States, ¶ 42, March 23, 2015.
Id. at ¶ 110.
IACHR, Report No. 90/09, Case 12.644, Ramirez Cadenas, United States, ¶ 61, 2009.
Responses by John Dewberry, Christian Olsen, Miguel Angel Martinez, Whitney Lee Reeves, Nanon Williams, Anthony Pierce, John
Herrin, Gene Hathorn, David DeBlanc, Carl Brooks and Jose Briseno to Human Rights Clinic questionnaire.
262	 Anthony Graves testimony, supra note 28.

	

45

CONCLUSION

C

apital punishment is in decline nationwide . 263

T he rate at which capital

sentences are imposed has steadily decreased in recent years, with the U.S. and
Texas moving away from the practice as a whole. Yet, a small number of states
continue to account for a significant number of death sentences, and the state of
Texas stands out among these states as the lethal “capital of capital punishment.”264

As Texas continues to sentence offenders to death, the living conditions on death row are in urgent
need of reform. After examining the physical conditions on Texas’s death row and TDCJ’s current
policies, this report has found that Texas’ capital punishment system stands in violation of basic
human rights, as well as a number of international treaties that were voluntarily ratified by the
U.S. and which are binding on Texas.
The 1999 reintroduction of mandatory solitary confinement for death row inmates has resulted
in a form of extended death row punishment.265 The practice has provoked significant criticism
from the international community, with many human rights bodies specifically condemning Texas’
utilization of long-term solitary confinement as a serious human rights violation.266 The practice
has been held to constitute cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment and, thus, an act of torture
as defined and prohibited by the Convention Against Torture267 and prohibited by the American
Declaration on the Rights and Duties of man268, and the ICCPR.269 The dehumanizing nature
and severely detrimental physical and psychological effects of such long-term isolation, namely
“death row syndrome”, should not be underestimated. This report has explored the ways in which
prolonged solitary confinement exacerbates pre-existing mental health disorders, as well as its
association with the development of mental health issues in otherwise unaffected individuals.
The complete lack of human contact, often for a number of decades, in conjunction with limited
access to recreational activity or materials and any form of outside stimuli, is severely detrimental
to Texas death row inmates’ mental health.270
Both the practice of prolonged isolation and the physical conditions present on death row have
been condemned by the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights, and recommendations
have been put forth by the Commission, as well as several UN Committees and Special Rapporteurs
concerned with the prohibition of torture. The IACHR has repeatedly found the conditions of
Texas’ death row to be abuses in violation of the American Declaration on the Rights and Duties
of Men, and has specifically opined that the use of solitary confinement should be reserved for
263	 Too Broken to Fix, supra note 13.
264	Dieter, supra note 8.
265	 Reassessing Solitary Confinement II, supra note 27.
266	 United Nations, Human Rights Committee, Consideration of reports submitted by States parties under article 40 of the Covenant,
CCPR/C/USA/CO/3/Rev.1 ¶ 32 (Dec. 18, 2006), available at undocs.org/CCPR/C/USA/CO/3/Rev.1.
267	 Convention Against Torture, art. 1.
268	 American Declaration on the Rights and Duties of Man, art. XXV, XXVI.
269	 International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, art. 7
270	 Solitary Failure, supra note 50.

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exceptional circumstances and implemented only as a last resort.271 The Commission has found that
the common issue of repeated calls to execution is a further violation of the American Declaration,
and has referenced the “psychological damage” which such a practice can have on an inmate.272
Similarly, the lack of access to medical and psychological care, as well as the routine barriers
in place regarding inmates’ right to religious services273, are evidence of substandard conditions
which Texas death row inmates are forced to live with, and are in clear violation of a number of
international human rights instruments to which Texas is legally bound.274 The current conditions
constitute an act of continuous torture against the inmates in question,275 and are inconsistent
with international standards to which Texas must adhere.276 In order to establish a human right
constituency within the state, and to contribute to the development of international human rights
norms and a universal culture of compliance, the U.S.—and Texas specifically—should implement
the relevant recommendations put forth by the governing international bodies. This will allow for
abolition of the practice of mandatory solitary isolation for death row inmates, and will ensure
the full realization of rights afforded to inmates by several international instruments. The right to
be free from torture is an absolute human right, and it is submitted that the current conditions of
confinement on Texas’ death row, including mandatory indefinite isolation, amounts to a severe
and relentless act of torture which cannot be permitted in the international community.

271	IACHR, Report on the human rights of persons deprived of liberty in the Americas, OEA/Ser.L/V/II, doc. 64 ¶ 319, 407-418 (December 31,
2011).
272	 IACHR, Report No. 97/03, Case 11.193, Merits (Publication), Shaka Sankofa, United States, ¶ 60, Dec. 29, 2003.
273	 Universal Declaration of Human Rights, art. 18.
274	 Namely, the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, the American Declaration on the Rights and Duties of Man, and the International
Covenant on Civil and Political Rights.
275	 United Nations, Special Rapporteur on torture and other cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment, Interim report of the
Special Rapporteur on torture and other cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment, A/66/268 ¶ 76, 87-88, (Aug. 5, 2011),
available at undocs.org/A/66/268. See also United Nations, Special Rapporteur on torture and other cruel, inhuman or degrading
treatment or punishment, Interim report of the Special Rapporteur on torture and other cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment or
punishment, A/68/295 ¶ 60-61 (Aug. 9, 2013) available at undocs.org/A/68/295.
276	 United Nations, Human Rights Committee, Concluding observations on the fourth periodic report of the United States of America,
CCPR/C/USA/CO/4 ¶ 20 (April 23, 2014).

	

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RECOMMENDATIONS

T

he right to be free from torture is an absolute human right , and it is

submitted that the current conditions of confinement on Texas’ death row, including
mandatory indefinite isolation, amounts to a severe and relentless act of torture.
The Clinic recommends that TDCJ and the Texas Legislature heed the numerous
advisements of international bodies, and adopt the appropriate measures to remedy

the faults found in this report. This should be done with the implementation of the following:
SOLITARY CONFINEMENT

1.	 Texas should impose strict limits on the use of solitary confinement and bring the conditions
of death row detention facilities into line with international standards.277
2.	 Solitary confinement should only be imposed as a measure of last resort, and for as short a
time as possible.
3.	 This includes abolishing the mandatory use of solitary confinement for death row inmates
and reinstating living conditions more similar to an average TDCJ unit.
4.	 Because of its adverse psychological effects, Texas should entirely ban the use of solitary
confinement for inmates with mental illness or intellectual disability.
5.	 Reinstate contact visits for death row inmates, both with family and friends and with
attorneys.
6.	 Ensure inmates have access to natural light, fresh air and outdoor activities.
REPEATED CALLS UP TO EXECUTION

1.	 Review the current Texas statute to ensure that any and all possible legal remedies are
completely exhausted before an execution date can be set by TDCJ.
2.	 Access to Health Care:
3.	 Make it easier for inmates to request medical care by improving communication channels
between inmates and health care providers.
4.	 Ensure that routine check-ups, both physical and psychological, are conducted at
appropriately frequent intervals.
5.	 Provide counseling and mental health care for inmates both prior to execution and after a
last-minute stay has been granted.

277	 United Nations, Human Rights Committee, Concluding observations on the fourth periodic report of the United States of America,
CCPR/C/USA/CO/4 (April 23, 2014).

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ACCESS TO RELIGIOUS SERVICES

1.	 Reinstate communal religious services for inmates at Polunsky Unit.
2.	 Provide easy access for religious volunteers, including ensuring that sufficient guard escorts
are available for visitors.

 

 

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