By Liz Wheaton
Vol. 2, No. 2., 1979, pp. 22
After July 2, 1976 when the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that executions could be resumed under certain circumstances, state legislatures clammored to enact “constitutional” death penalty statutes and, as of June of this year, 512 people inhabit America’s Death Rows. Six of the condemned are women, and each of these is a Southerner.
Their sex is but one of the factors that make these women unique residents of the Southern executioners’ holding pens. Although Black and other minorities make up more than 47 percent of male Death Row inmates, all of the women are White. And while death sentences are not uniformly given to men who murder their wives or lovers, half of the condemned women were convicted of killing men with whom they were intimate. Two of these women received the death sentence in North Carolina (for the same method of killing, poisoning) and the others are from Georgia, Florida, Alabama and Texas.
If their court appeals are rejected, the North Carolina women will die in the gas chamber; the women in Florida, Georgia and Alabama will be electrocuted; and Texas will have the distinction of killing the first American woman by the “scientifically superior method” of lethal injection.
While much of the death penalty’s barbarity lies in the act of execution itself, the conditions of confinement on Death Row may well be more brutal than the final agony of death. “To wait like this is to die every day,” says one woman. And for the women, it may be worse because there are so few of them.
All Death Row inmates are isolated from the rest of the prison population, but the men can take some small comfort in the fact that because none of them are solitary residents they have companions on the cell block. They are within hearing distance of other human beings at all times, and most of them need only look up to see another’s face across the corridor.
Women’s prisons were not built to house Death Row inmates, so the women are confined in isolation cells which are ordinarily reserved for violent or psychotic prisoners. Customarily prison administrators recognize that minds snap quickly when deprived of human contact and therefore, rarely hold inmates in isolation for longer than a month or two as punishment. The women under sentence of death, however, are in permanent isolation.
With the exception of a guard who slides the meal tray under the steel door three times a day, most Death Row women may not see or hear another person for days. Their outside contact is limited to their attorney, a minister or psychologist, and a few family members – if their families will have anything more to do with them. For the most part, though, they eat alone; sleep, read and cry alone; and live in near-solitude in a cinder-block dungeon which may or may not have a window.
Remarkably, the women on Death Row for the most part have not been debilitated by their experience. Seventeen-year old Debra Bracewell in Alabama has experienced a religious conversion and is taking a high school equivalency course. Becky Machetti corresponds with and offers encouragement from her isolated cell in Georgia to any prisoner who writes to her. Sonia Jacobs has become a jailhouse lawyer and has filed suit against the Florida State Correctional Center for Women charging sex discrimination in her treatment as a female Death Row inmate.
Velma Barfield, however, has indicated that she will not allow her appeals to go beyond the North Carolina Supreme Court. The state’s gas chamber has been freshly painted, new leather straps have been secured to the sturdy wooden chair, and a woman may lead the ghoulish procession of death.
While different from the men of Death Row, the women also show their own diversities. They are teenagers and grandparents. They are high school dropouts and college graduates. Some are gentle and others are violent; sane and insane, weak and strong. They’re really not so different from free people.
Male or female, Death Row inmates do share a common trait: they are poor, powerless… and they shall die to serve as an example to the rest of us that killing is wrong. By this bizaare standard, states have a deadly equality.
Liz Wheaton is a staff associate for the ACLU Southern Women’s Rights Project in Richmond, Virginia.