Inside a Modern Death Row, the Prisoners Can Only Wait
New York Times, June 4, 2002
There are 6 of them in cells that are always locked along a gray corridor. Separated by cement block walls, they wait for their appeals. Or for a lethal injection.
The condemned men on New York's death row spend 23 hours every day in the 72-square-foot cells that face that corridor. They do not spend time together. They are fed their meals in their cells. Video cameras watch their every move, including when they use the toilet.
Before the current group of death row inmates, the state last held a prisoner facing execution in 1984. As a result, correction officials have had to reinvent the institution of death row that many people know only through gritty images from old movies.
For New York's condemned men, it is a monochrome life in a place apart from the strained routines of even the most stringent prisons. These 6 cannot hold jobs. The televisions in their cells are black and white. When they talk about a Scrabble game or the Mets, they must shout through the bars.
An hour of daily exercise takes place in an empty prison yard with no gym
equipment. "I feel like a lab rat walking around in a circle," Stephen LaValle, a convicted murderer and rapist, said through a plexiglass divider in what prison officials said was the 1st interview on death row here.
Officially known as the Unit for Condemned Prisoners, the long corridor at the big prison here near the Canadian border has been a nearly forgotten place since it was opened after the enactment of the state's new death penalty law in 1995. Last month the case of Darrel K. Harris, who became the new unit's 1st resident, reached the state's highest court, the Court of Appeals.
But a rare picture of life on New York's death row has emerged recently because of the interview with Mr. LaValle, an exchange of letters between a reporter and Mr. Harris, interviews with several of the few visitors who have been allowed here, and newly released letters and reports.
"I remember one of them saying, `We feel like we are already dead,' " said Jennifer R. Wynn, one of the few people known to have been given full access to the unit, as a prison monitor for the Correctional Association of New York, a nonprofit watchdog group.
This glimpse of one of the country's newest death rows helps show how New York correction officials are dealing with questions that have no consistent answer nationally: how should those sentenced to the ultimate punishment be treated while they wait to die?
In the recent exchange of letters, Mr. Harris, who was convicted in 1998 of killing three people at a Brooklyn social club two years before, described a regimented schedule with little to fill the hours: Breakfast at 7:30, dinner at 4:30. In between there is exercise, television and lunch at noon.
Sometimes, he said, "I'll read a novel then take a nap." He often studies the Bible, he said. He watches "The West Wing" and "Dawson's Creek."
Mr. Harris, 44, was asked how much contact he has with other people.
"None whatsoever," he answered.
Mr. LaValle, 35, saw a reporter for 2 hours in the tiny visiting room where he sees his mother and sister every 2 months when they drive up from Long Island to see him. Prison officials strictly limit regular authorized visitors to lawyers, immediate family and those with whom the inmate has had "a long-term personal relationship." Provisions are made for media visits, and Mr. LaValle consented to an interview.
The others on death row James Cahill, Angel Luis Mateo, Robert Shulman and Nicholson McCoy did not respond to requests for an interview.
The inmates, whose average age is 40, see visitors from behind a plastic window in a metal wall. The metal wall divides a small room that resembles a closet connected to the back of each cell. The inmates enter the area through an electronically controlled door. The inmate's portion of the room also contains the shower stall he is permitted to use three times a week. The stall has no curtain.
A small metal grid in the plexiglass allows inmates and visitors to hear each other. Mr. LaValle said his mother and sister cry when they visit. But the plexiglass, and the rules of death row, forbid them from touching.
"I can't hug my mom and tell her, `Mom, I love you,' " he said. "It's very frustrating." He was convicted of raping and stabbing more than 70 times a 32-year-old woman named Cynthia Quinn, of Medford, a mother of 2.
State officials say the rules for the death row at Clinton Correctional Facility minimize security problems and the risk of suicide. "These are people who have been convicted of especially heinous murders and who have
nothing to lose by attacking each other, themselves or, worse, our staff," said James Flateau, the spokesman for the New York State Department of Correctional Services.
Several groups have recently raised questions about the living conditions on the state's death row. In September, a committee of the Association of the Bar of the City of New York published the first comprehensive report, and its main author, David S. Hammer, called New York's death row "one of the harshest in the country."
In an analysis to be released later this month, which was provided for
this article, the Correctional Association, the watchdog group, concluded that death row was a more restrictive environment than the disciplinary units the state established to house the most violent criminals who commit new offenses in prison.
Those groups and civil lawyers at the law firm of Sullivan & Cromwell, who represent 3 of the inmates, point out that no one has tried to escape
from death row or committed violent assaults in the unit.
Mr. Flateau, the correction department spokesman, said the lack of violent incidents showed that the restrictions worked. "The reason they are so well behaved," he said, "is that they do not have the opportunity not to be."
Mr. Flateau said none of the department's top officials would answer questions about death row and declined to provide a reporter a full tour of the unit "for reasons related to security."
But letters between the lawyers for the inmates and a top correction official, which were provided by the lawyers, showed how the state is evaluating and in some cases re-evaluating the death row rules.
The inmates' lawyers said last summer that they were considering a suit
claiming violations of the inmates' constitutional rights. Anthony J. Annucci, a deputy correction commissioner, responded that the rules were in line with national practices. He took issue with the lawyers' assertions that the men were in solitary confinement, saying they can interact with correction officers, chaplains and others.
Still, the state has retreated on several points, the correspondence shows. The officials, for example, recently stopped flooding the cells with bright fluorescent light 24 hours a day. The inmates said the light had made it impossible for them to sleep.
Prison officials maintained that they needed that light to maintain the video surveillance. They recently switched to infrared light, which by all accounts has permitted more normal sleeping conditions.
That appears to be where the line is drawn. In a January letter, Mr. Annucci defended rules that keep visiting lawyers and their death row clients separate and require them to be watched by video cameras. One reason, he suggested, was that lawyers might help their clients with escape plans. "The person closest to the inmate may very well be his attorney," he wrote.
Through the plexiglass wall, Mr. LaValle said the inmates adapt. They have numbered every square and every piece on Scrabble boards to shout out moves through the bars to another inmate with a similarly marked set.
The men rarely see each other's faces. But when they exercise, 2 men are taken out at a time. Each is placed in a yard, surrounded by prison walls and barbed wire and divided by a wooden wall.
One man is placed on each side of the wall. Usually, Mr. LaValle said, he spends his hour walking in circles or doing some of the thousands of
push-ups he does every day.
But there are spaces the width of a pencil between each wooden slat. Sometimes, Mr. LaValle said, 2 condemned men face each other for an unusual talk about sports, or their appeals. "You can make eye contact," he said.