Condemned to Die is a book about life under sentence of death in American prisons. The great majority of condemned prisoners are confined on death rows before they are executed. Death rows typically feature solitary confinement, a harsh regimen that is closely examined in this book. Death rows that feature solitary confinement are most common in states that execute prisoners with regularity, which is to say, where there is a realistic threat that condemned prisoners will be put to death. Less restrictive confinement conditions for condemned prisoners can be found in states where executions are rare. Confinement conditions matter, especially to prisoners, but a central contention of this book is that no regimen of confinement under sentence of death offers its inmates a round of activity that might in any way prepare them for the ordeal they must face in the execution chamber, when they are put to death. In a basic and profound sense, all condemned prisoners are warehoused for death in the shadow of the executioner. Human warehousing, seen most clearly on solitary confinement death rows, violates every tenet of just punishment; no legal or philosophical justification for capital punishment demands or even permits warehousing of prisoners under sentence of death. The punishment is death. There is neither a mandate nor a justification for harsh and dehumanizing confinement before the prisoner is put to death. Yet warehousing for death, of an empty and sometimes brutal nature, is the universal fate of condemned prisoners. The enormous suffering and injustice caused by this human warehousing, rendered in the words of the prisoners themselves, is the subject of this book.
Table of Contents
Frontispiece: The Smell Came
FOREWORD BY ROBERT BOHM
PART I: THE DEATH SENTENCE AND THE CONDEMNED
1. MAN AGAINST HIMSELF: STUDYING THE HUMAN DIMENSIONS OF CAPITAL PUNISHMENT
2. PATHWAYS TO DEATH ROW
PART II: THE EXPERIENCE OF DEATH ROW CONFINEMENT
3. ROOTS OF POWERLESSNESS
4. DEATH WORK AND THE CRUCIBLE OF FEAR
5. CONTEMPLATING EXECUTION
6. A LIVING DEATH
PART III: REFLECTIONS ON LIFE UNDER SENTENCE OF DEATH AND THE LIMITS OF DEATH PENALTY REFORM
7. CAPITAL PUNISHMENT: THE VIEW FROM DEATH ROW
AFTERWORD BY CRAIG HANEY
Epigram: Burnt Offerings
Robert Johnson is a professor of justice, law and criminology at American University, editor and publisher at BleakHouse Publishing, and an award-winning author of books and articles on crime and punishment, including works of social science, law, poetry, and fiction. He has written four social science books, including Condemned to Die: Life Under Sentence of Death and Death Work: A Study of the Modern Execution Process, which received the Outstanding Book Award of the Academy of Criminal Justice Sciences. Johnson has edited six social science books, including Life Without Parole: Living and Dying in Prison Today and A Woman Doing Life: Notes from a Prison for Women. Johnson has published extensively in professional journals, including law reviews, and has testified or provided expert affidavits on capital and other cases before U.S. state and federal courts, the U.S. Congress, and the European Commission of Human Rights. Johnson’s scholarship also features creative writing on crime and punishment. He is the author of one novel, Miller’s Revenge; four collections of original poems, most recently, A Zoo Near You; and one anthology of fiction, Lethal Rejection: Stories on Crime and Punishment. Johnson’s fiction has appeared in literary and fine arts publications. His short story, “The Practice of Killing,” won a national fiction contest sponsored by Wild Violet magazine. Another short story, “Cell Buddy,” was adapted for the stage and read at the Kennedy Center in Washington, DC. Johnson’s independent literary press, BleakHouse Publishing, features creative writing, art, and photography on matters relating to social justice, showcasing the work of a wide range of writers and artists, among which are included current and former American University students as well as current and former state and federal prisoners. He is a Distinguished Alumnus of the School of Criminal Justice, Nelson A. Rockefeller College of Public Affairs and Policy, University at Albany, State University of New York.
"Johnson’s study is widely acknowledged to be the closest anyone can come to an inside view of capital punishment, and the report of his study exemplifies the best any of us could hope to achieve in trying to convey the depth and import of significant human experiences, and in both capacities this book has been, and remains, a classic."
—Hans Toch, Emeritus Distinguished Professor of Criminal Justice, University at Albany, State University of New York, Author of Living in Prison: The Ecology of Survival
"If more people in our society understood the true nature of the death-sentencing process in our society—how it actually operates and what it necessarily entails—and came to terms with, as Camus said, what the death penalty "really is," as opposed to the "padded words," myth, and misinformation with which it is typically depicted, then the practice would have ended a long time ago. Robert Johnson’s extraordinary book brings us much closer to that enlightened understanding."
—Craig Haney, Distinguished Professor of Psychology,University of California Presidential Chair, 2015-2018, Author of Death by Design: Capital Punishment as a Social Psychological System
"Perhaps the most cruel and unusual aspect about capital punishment in the United States is what Robert Johnson, in this second edition of his classic, Condemned to Die, characterizes as the ‘living death" of life under sentence of death. This book is an essential resource for anyone seeking a full understanding of the death penalty in America today."
—Robert Bohm, Emeritus Professor of Criminal Justice, University of Central Florida, Author of DeathQuest: An Introduction to the Theory and Practice of Capital Punishment in the United States
"Prisoners, especially those on Death Row, are subject to a huge amount of abuse. Their abusers require two things be in place to get away with torture: The prisoners they abuse must be viewed by the larger society as less than human, as animals even; and the abuse must be secret, invisible to the general public. Robert Johnson exposes and undermines both prerequisites for abuse by letting prisoners on Death Row tell their stories, very human stories filled with multiple traumas; and by unblinkingly presenting the harsh reality of life on "The Row." Condemned to Die is a very well-researched and poignant book, and absolutely a must-read for all those who oppose torture and value freedom."
—Terry A. Kupers, M.D., M.S.P. The Wright Institute, Author of Solitary: The Inside Story of Supermax Isolation and How We Can Abolish It
"Once again, Robert Johnson has given a voice to broken men whom the state wishes to obliterate. He challenges us to recognize the inherent dignity of death row residents by making us privy to their fears, hopes and daily troubles. This project of rehumanization is vitally important if the cruelty and toxicity of capital punishment are to be laid bare. It is to be hoped that Condemned to Die will add momentum to the drive to eradicate an abhorrent—and increasingly anachronistic—practice."
—Ian O'Donnell, Professor of Criminology, University College Dublin, Author of Prisoners, Solitude, and Time
"This new edition of Robert Johnson’s Condemned to Die takes the reader deep into the world of Alabama’s death row in 1978, while bridging the gap between now and then with critical insight and humane sensitivity. An invaluable resource for anyone who wants to understand the death penalty in America."
—Lisa Guenther, Queen’s National Scholar in Political Philosophy and Critical Prison Studies at Queen’s University, Canada, Author of Solitary Confinement: Social Death and its Afterlives.
"Professor Robert Johnson’s exploration of life on death row simultaneously condemns as torture solitary confinement and capital punishment. Beautifully written, compellingly argued and researched, this is the essential study of how human rights should be enlisted in the legal reform of our most onerous punishments: death row and execution."
—Fred Cohen, Professor Emeritus, SUNY at Albany, School of Criminal Justice
"The view from Death Row narrated by Robert Johnson in Condemned to Die, largely through the voices of those who experience it, is a compelling but difficult read. Puncturing some of the myths about the individuals consigned to a "living death", Johnson shines a light into the very deepest corners of the American penal system, exposing both its horrors and the resourcefulness and dignity of the human beings who endure extreme confinement. The exquisitely cruel journey from conviction to execution—or in some cases, simply interminable years of languishing in conditions of social and material deprivation—that Johnson subtly guides us through, rightly interrogates a punishment that serves no proportionate penological purpose. Powerful and affecting, this book will leave a lasting impression."
—Yvonne Jewkes, Professor of Criminology, University of Bath
"Condemned to Die is an exceptionally powerful and important book. By building a detailed, first-hand account of the everyday and existential anguish of being a death row prisoner, Johnson makes a compelling case for the abolition of capital punishment, while providing exceptional insight into the nature of humanity and tragedy, survival and deterioration, and hope and despair."
—Ben Crewe, Deputy Director of the Prisons Research Centre, University of Cambridge
"In this classic, ground-breaking work, Johnson exposes the agony and cruelty of what passes for life on death row—as Johnson calls it, a "grave for the living." As demonstrated in this revised edition, this "psychological nightmare" has only gotten worse in recent decades as the agonizing wait for death has grown even longer for most prisoners. As difficult as it is to contemplate these horrors, Condemned to Dieshould be read by all those who oppose the death penalty or students who want to understand it better. Yet, more importantly, it should be required reading for death penalty supporters. Few could maintain such views in light of this powerful research."
—Shadd Maruna, Professor of Criminology, University of Manchester, Author of Making Good: How Ex-Convicts Reform and Rebuild Their Lives
"Robert Johnson's Condemned to Die is a beautiful if devastating deep excavation of the lives buried behind the multiple concrete walls and steel locks of America's death rows. The book is compelling, uncovering vivid life stories and horrific traumas, told often in the voices of the prisoners and the condemned themselves. With careful integration of social theory, contextual statistics, and other studies of prison conditions and death row experiences, however, Johnson avoids the sensationalism of reality television or true crime novels. A must-read for those who care about criminal justice policy, those who want to understand the experience of the deepest end of incarceration, and those who are interested in re-thinking the meaning of cruel and unusual punishment."
—Keramet Reiter, Associate Professor, University of California, Irvine, Author of 23/7: Pelican Bay Prison and the Rise of Long-Term Solitary Confinement