Death Penalty and Death Row in USA

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Living conditions on Death Row

Florida also punishes the inmates' families

Editorial, St. Petersburg Times, April 5, 2000

You don't have to be a bleeding-heart softie when it comes to death-row inmates to know the "no-contact" rule recently proposed by the state Department of Corrections would be bad policy. The rule, which would end all contact visits between inmates and their families, is the latest move to dehumanize life within Florida's prisons. Reasonable people can argue that someone who kills another -- depriving that victim of ever seeing his children or spouse again -- doesn't deserve the right to embrace members of his own family. But this step would punish an inmate's innocent family as much as or more than it would the inmate.

Making life hard for inmates is one thing. But why take it out on their children?

DOC says the step is necessary to prevent the smuggling of contraband and to ward off potential hostage situations. But many guards fear it would only end up making prisons more dangerous, not less so. The change would take from prison staff an important tool for keeping prisoners in line. Earlier this week, 250 north Florida inmates launched a hunger strike, in apparent protest of the impending change.

"What they're going to do is make dangerous people more dangerous," said Hillsborough County assistant public defender John Skye. "It's like imposing a tougher sentence on the prison guards."

Or, as a death-row inmate's fiancee put it more bluntly: "It's like poking a dog with a stick."

DOC may be correct that physical contact is a privilege, not a right. But no one suggests that the privilege has been widely abused. Indeed, the current policy, which allows for hugging and kissing while guards are in the room, has produced "no record of major problems," according to DOC spokesman C.J. Drake. What the current policy has done, instead, is make the interim between the crime and imposition of death more bearable for prisoners' spouses and children.

Society has good reason to penalize killers. But a "no-contact" rule makes the wrong people pay.