Death Row Phenomenon: The psychological impact of living in the shadow of execution

It is a “graveyard behind high walls far from the eye of the public.”[1]

The unique psychological impact on prisoners of long periods under the harsh conditions of death row, with the ever-present shadow of execution hanging over them, is known as death row phenomenon.

This bleak isolation and years of torturous uncertainty can result in a sharp deterioration in a prisoner’s mental and physical state, often making inmates suicidal. Many have attempted suicide in the weeks and days leading up to their executions, only to be ‘saved’ and brought back to prison so their sentence can be carried out by the authorities – in Brandon Rhode’s case in Georgia, USA, the IV port was even left in place so that the lethal injection could be administered in the same site.

Death row phenomenon, in itself, has been recognised as cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment. The European Court of Human Rights found that prolonged incarceration on death row constituted cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment in the case of Soering v United Kingdom and Germany,[2] as did the Privy Council in Pratt et al v Attorney-General for Jamaica et al.[3]

Death row conditions

Conditions on death rows around the world vary, but are recognised to be universally harsh and isolating.

Sometimes spending decades on death row, prisoners are usually isolated from the general population and held in solitary confinement. They are not able to participate in education and employment programs. Their isolation is often compounded by restrictions on visits from family and others. They spend as much as 23 hours a day alone in their cells, in a state of constant uncertainty over when they will be executed.[4]

Time on death row

Death row inmates in the US typically spend over a decade awaiting execution, but, for many, it is much longer. Reprieve has worked on cases in the US and around the world of prisoners who have been on death row for well over 20 years.

Living in the shadow of execution

For prisoners on death row, the decades of harsh conditions are endured in a state of both certainty and uncertainty – the certainty and mounting tension that execution is an inevitability that looms ever closer, but uncertainty about exactly when it will happen, and how long the lengthily legal process, with it’s many delays and improbabilities, will leave the prisoner in this state.

For some ‘living in the shadow of execution’ is much more literal – executions in some countries are carried out in prisons, the gallows are clearly visible from the death row cells, serving as a constant reminder of what is to come.


[1] Caycie D. Bradford, Waiting to Die, Dying to Live: An Account of the Death Row Phenomenon from a Legal Viewpoint, 5 Interdisc. J. Hum. Rts. L. 77, 85, 86 (2011).
[2] (1989) 11 EHRR 439.
[3] (1993) 3 SLR 995, 2 AC 1, 4 All ER 769.
[4] See http://www.deathpenaltyinfo.org/time-death-row