High crime rates in the US and elsewhere will not be solved by simply increasing the capacity of prisons

California’s San Quentin State Prison, the largest death row in the USA, has recently announced that it has reached full capacity. This follows nearly a decade of litigation concerning death penalty protocol in California; executions were halted in 2006 owing to complaints about the administration of the lethal injection. During this time, the population on California’s death row has grown from 646 to 751, and the prison can no longer accommodate any more inmates. In an attempt to combat this, governor Jerry Brown has proposed an expansion of 97 more cells, estimated to cost around $3.2m, to support a predicted intake of 20 condemned men and women per year; a figure which is interesting to consider, given that only 13 executions have taken place in California since the death penalty was reinstated there in 1978.

However, California is far from the only state to be having problems with its capital punishment procedures; the USA is currently experiencing a nationwide shortage of the drugs required to carry out the lethal injection. As a result of this, the state of Utah passed a law last month to resume the use of firing squads to carry out executions when the necessary drugs are unavailable, whilst Alabama and Tennessee have decided to reintroduce the electric chair as a backup method. Meanwhile, in Oklahoma, politicians in the House of Representatives voted to trial execution of prisoners by nitrogen asphyxiation, a previously untested method.

What the American legal system does not appear to have fully processed is that this shortage is not merely arbitrary. The majority of the drugs used for lethal injections are manufactured in the European Union, where the death penalty is not only opposed but has been legally abolished, and export restrictions have been placed on the required medications. Consequently, it does not seem unfair to claim that the US’s response so far is somewhat missing the point.

Firstly, the lethal injection method has been under intense scrutiny for several years, and questions are being asked as to whether the triple-drug cocktail does serve to act quickly and painlessly, as was initially thought when it was introduced. Two cases in particular – the executions of Clayton Lockett in April 2014, who took 45 minutes to die after staff failed to place the needle into him properly, and of Angel Diaz in December 2006, who took 34 minutes and a second round of injections to complete, and whose autopsy revealed chemical burns on his arms – seem to suggest otherwise.

Secondly, the proposed alternatives are methods of execution which have already been found to be flawed. Electrocution, for example, was condemned following several cases where multiple electric shocks were required to complete the execution, and, whilst this is a fictional example, no one who has seen The Green Mile can forget the horrific scene of Del’s death. Similarly, the firing squad was described as “a little bit gruesome” even by Gary Herbert, the Utah governor who reintroduced it to the state.

Oklahoma’s nitrogen asphyxiation is the exception to this, but given that it is thus far untested, it is impossible to say for certain what will happen. Finally, the amount of time condemned men and women will spend on death row waiting for their execution in the USA borders on absurdity; according to statistics provided by the Death Penalty Information Centre, the average is ten years, whilst the longest recorded gap between sentencing and execution is 36 years. The psychological suffering caused by this is in many cases believed to be a more severe punishment than the death itself; similar comments have been made about the length of time frequently taken for appeals.

According to Amnesty International, in 2014, the US carried out the fourth highest number of executions, behind only China, Iran and Saudi Arabia, yet it continues to hold one of the highest crimes rates in the world. From this, it is clear that some sort of reform is needed. What is equally clear is that America is by no means alone in this. British prisons, for example, are on the verge of an overcrowding crisis, whilst recent debates about the ban on sending books to prisoners and whether or not inmates should retain their right to vote during their incarceration suggests we need to seriously examine what the intended purpose of our judicial system is. The solution to these questions is yet to be found; nevertheless, it seems improbable that increasing the capacity of death row is likely to be the answer.


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