Death penalty systems disregard mental health – experts

World Day

By Thomas Hubert, on 25 September 2014

Mental disorders among people facing the death penalty are the focus of the 12th World Day Against the Death Penalty on October 10, 2014, which is also World Mental Health Day.
Dr Stephen Greenspan, a developmental psychologist who testifies regularly before US courts in capital cases, says that at most one in four defendants who plead intellectual disability in the country are granted an exemption under the 2002 Atkins v. Virginia ruling, in which the Supreme Court banned the execution of the intellectually disabled.
“Scientific standards are well developed but not all experts follow those standards, because not all experts really have a good familiarity with the field or with what the standards are,” Dr Greenspan said, regretting that the courts weren’t strict enough in their criteria when accepting testimonies from psychologists or psychiatrists on a defendant’s intellectual ability.
He added that intellectually disabled people who were more gullible and therefore more easily drawn by others to commit crimes and by police to confess under interrogation pressure faced a higher risk of being sentenced to death if they weren’t properly assessed.

To help the judiciary improve its practices, the American Association on Intellectual and Developmental Disabilities is due to publish a new book shortly: The Death Penalty and Intellectual Disability: A Guide, edited by Edward Polloway.
“It will be very important for not only experts but also attorneys and judges to read this, because it details was is or is not appropriate as defined by professionals in the field of intellectual disability,” Dr Greenspan said.

> Explore the World Coalition’s online library for a full bibliography on mental illness and intellectual disability in relation to the death penalty.

Yet the challenges remain so large in protecting intellectually disabled people from the death penalty that Dr Greenspan thinks the best solution would be to abolish it.
“There is the problem of IQ ceilings: in the 1960s, it was 85, now it is 70. If your IQ is 69, you can live, if it is 71, you can die – regardless of the fact that the number is not very reliable,” he said, adding that similar problems existed in many countries outside the US.

Confinement causing mental illness on death row

Dr Terry Kupers, a psychiatrist who spent most of his career working in prisons, said the trend towards housing death row in solitary confinement prison units caused additional mental illness among prisoners and amounted to “torture”.
“Death row typically is not a very violent place, said Dr Kupers. People facing the death penalty usually are pretty serious, they’re older, they are working on their appeal and they have no need to prove themselves in prison. They tend to be very cooperative and friendly. There is absolutely no penal objective to putting death row inside solitary confinement.”
Yet this has become the rule in many US states and elsewhere.
In addition to the death row phenomenon – the emotional ups and downs of having one’s hope rise and fall as appeals progress and fail while fellow death row prisoners are executed – solitary confinement puts even more pressure on prisoners’ minds, often triggering psychiatric episodes, Dr Kupers said.
“Imagine being alone in a prison cell with nobody to talk to, the temperature is wrong, the toilets are flooding, recreation is not happening, the food is terrible, he said There are two officers talking too low for you to understand. You begin to think they’re plotting something against you. Prisoners have no way to check. That’s where paranoia develops.”
As a result, Dr Kupers observed a higher rate of suicide in solitary confinement units and decisions by some death row prisoners to abandon their appeals and seek a quick execution.
“It is a spectacle, a way to show how we treat ‘the worst of the worst’, he said It has replaced public executions: until we execute them, we are going to torture them.”

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