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A new report by the Center for Constitutional Rights and the International Federation for Human Rights finds that prisoners on California and Louisiana's death row are being held in degrading and inhumane conditions that amount to torture under international law.
Prison staff, psychiatrists, prisoners and their families, and exonerated death row inmates were among the people interviewed to discover the ugly truth behind the bars.
The investigation teams who prepared the report found that both California and Louisiana often hold condemned prisoners in solitary confinement for decades. That's a practice that leads to severe psychological and physical harm, and is against international law.
Discrimination against Blacks and other minorities is widespread in both prison systems. The report found stark racial and geographic disparities in death penalty charging and sentencing rates in both states, as well as a significant overrepresentation of minorities on death row.
"In California, the ratio of African Americans on death row is nearly six times their percentage in the population at large, and in Louisiana, the percentage of African Americans is double their representation in the population," the Center for Constitutional rights says in a press release.
| From the Report: John Thompson's Story |
John Thompson had been convicted of murder in 1985.
In the fourteen years he spent on death row, Thompson was given six dates for his execution, all procedurally stayed so that he could continue appeals. With each new writ of execution, the pressure on Mr. Thompson became "more crushing" and forced him to think about his life as "a constant countdown to lethal injection."
After his defense team exhausted all formal avenues of appeal, Thompson was given his seventh date, which he knew would be his last. Mr. Thompson prepared to die. He sought to tell his youngest son about his scheduled death, which would occur the day before the boy's high school graduation, but his son's teacher unknowingly informed him first, announcing the upcoming execution to his class.
Just weeks before his scheduled execution, a private investigator on John's case discovered scientific evidence of his innocence which had been hidden by the prosecutor's office. His life was spared and Thompson returned home. In addition to evidencing the struggles of those on death row, Thompson's case is a prime example of the lack of redress for victims of due process violations and torture and cruel, inhuman, and degrading treatment.
Upon release from prison, Thompson was given $10 and a bus ticket. Although a jury later awarded Thompson $14 million in damages, the Supreme Court reversed this
award due to immunity protections the U.S. provides prosecutors.
Mr. Thompson is now organizing other exonerees in his community and across the nation to seek better prosecutorial oversight and options for redress.
Louisiana prisoners are held in solitary cells with no respite from extremes of heat and cold – sometimes in temperatures of 110 degrees. In San Quentin prison, more prisoners have committed suicide than have been executed.
Several states, for example Illinois, have abolished the death penalty over concerns about wrongful convictions.
Florence Bellivier, the International Federation for Human Rightsrepresentative who led the California investigation, called for both states to abolish the death penalty.
"Louisiana and California should urgently revise their policy and abolish the death penalty." she says in a press release.
"In 2012, 21 countries carried out executions, including the United States. By abolishing capital punishment, the US would join a growing national and worldwide movement. It's about the enhancement of human dignity and the progressive development of human rights."
Bellivier is president of the World Coalition Against the Death Penalty.
Vincent Warren, Executive Director of the Center for Constitutional Rights, who led the mission in Louisiana also called for an end to the death penalty.
"The death penalty constitutes an inherent violation of the most fundamental of all human rights: the right to live," he said in a statement.
"Not only are death row prisoners being denied this fundamental right in a process known to be rife with errors and discrimination, but in California and Louisiana, they are also being held, sometimes for decades on end, in conditions that clearly violate the United Nations Convention Against Torture, to which the United States is a party."