Death Row Narratives: A Qualitative Analysis of Mental Health Issues Found In Death Row Inmate Blog Entries

AuthorJacqueline Lantsman,Robert Johnson
Published date01 March 2021
Date01 March 2021
Subject MatterArticles
/tmp/tmp-18ez1opnaayliJ/input 994212TPJXXX10.1177/0032885521994212The Prison JournalJohnson and Lantsman
The Prison Journal
2021, Vol. 101(2) 147 –165
Death Row Narratives:
© 2021 SAGE Publications
Article reuse guidelines:
A Qualitative Analysis
DOI: 10.1177/0032885521994212
of Mental Health Issues
Found In Death Row
Inmate Blog Entries
Robert Johnson1 and Jacqueline Lantsman2
Death row inmate narratives, culled from online blogs, are used to explore
the social determinants of mental health in the context of the stresses and
deprivations of living on death row. Legal and correctional procedures
that affect death row inmates are conceptualized as social determinants of
mental health. These procedures include the granting or denying of stays
of execution, conditions of solitary confinement during death row and the
death watch, and impending dates of execution. Death row narratives offer a
nuanced account of the many ways condemned prisoners must contend with
their powerlessness as an essential element of life under sentence of death.
death row, executions, prison adjustment, mental health, health justice
This study analyzes death row inmate blogs. These narratives shed light on
upstream factors that influence the mental health of condemned prisoners who
live for years, and even decades, under a sentence of death awaiting execution.
1American University, Washington, DC, USA
2George Washington University, DC, USA
Corresponding Author:
Robert Johnson, Department of Justice, Law & Criminology, American University, 4400
Massachusetts Avenue, Kerwin Building 270, Washington, DC 20016, USA.

The Prison Journal 101(2)
In public health research, upstream factors are physical environments and the
actors within these environments which are analyzed in relation to develop-
ment of illness and individual action taken to prevent or treat illness (Williams
et al., 2008). These factors are considered social determinants of health and
are shaped by the distribution of resources and power that often drive health
inequity (Amaro, 2014). In this study, upstream factors will be analyzed within
the legal and correctional environments of death row. This research will ana-
lyze how policies and procedures within legal and correctional environments
affect the mental health and emotional stability of inmates living on death row.
Death row is a uniquely oppressive prison setting, typically featuring
extended solitary confinement under the threat of execution (Johnson, 2019).
Coercive and dehumanizing conditions are common features of American
prisons that have been shown to compromise mental health stability (Johnson
& Whitbread, 2018; Kupers, 1999). These conditions are greatly pronounced
on death row, the most controlling, confining, and degrading institution in the
American penal archipelago. Unsurprisingly, mental health deterioration is
common on death row. One study found that more than 40% of death row
inmates who were executed had a documented history of serious mental ill-
ness (Baumgartner et al., 2018). The death row setting, which illustrates viv-
idly the notion that inmates are “civilly dead” (Johnson, 2019), only
aggravates mental health conditions (Johnson et al., 2017). Death row blogs
offer a unique window into this repressive and largely hidden environment.
Inmate accounts of feelings of powerlessness are a key measure used to
assess the relationship between upstream factors and the quality of death row
inmate mental health. Powerlessness is defined by Seeman (2001) as “the
expectancy or perception that one’s own behavior cannot control the occur-
rence of personal and social outcomes” (p. 385). This definition relates to the
notion of locus of control, which refers to the degree to which people attri-
bute accountability to themselves (internal control) instead of forces beyond
their control (external control) (Miller et al., 1983).
An individual’s perception of powerlessness is conceived as a stressor,
which may influence somatic health as well as mental health (Whitehead
et al., 2016). Chronic feelings of powerlessness may lead to anxiety and
depression (Dalgard, 2008). Additionally, powerlessness is linked to poor
psychosocial wellness and health (Hay, 2010). Interviews with death row
inmates examined the feelings of powerlessness these condemned prisoners
experience in relation to the physical setting of death row, as well as attendant
custodial procedures (Johnson, 2019). Pervasive feelings of powerlessness
are magnified by limitations on visits (sharply circumscribed in terms of time
and physical contact with visitors) and mail (read and sometimes censored;
subject to restrictions regarding paper and stamps). In concert with the

Johnson and Lantsman
isolated and controlled nature of death row, these limitations make it difficult
to keep in touch with family and attorneys.
Symptoms of mental health conditions are another possible outcome of
the relationship between social and legal factors and the experience of life
under sentence of death. To date, research examining mental illness symp-
toms within the high-stress context of death row has identified a range of
symptoms (Kupers, 2017). In this study, the various forms of symptomol-
ogy defined both generally and within the correctional setting are examined
in the language of death row inmates to better understand their mental
health experience.
Our sample of blogs was drawn from the first five Google search engine
results for the term “death row blogs” in September 2017, when the research
began. These blogs were: Minutes Before Six (minutesbeforesix.blogspot.
com), Death Row Diary (, Death Row Journals
(, Free Kevin Cooper (
pages/essays.html), and Charles Mamou: Texas Death-Row (charlesmamou. These blogs yielded 1,127 blog posts, from which 80 posts
were randomly selected. These randomly selected blogs represented 17
inmates and three states: Texas, Florida, and California. These states have the
highest death row population in the United States. As of October, 2020,
California has a total of 724 prisoners on death row, Florida has a total of 346
prisoners on death row, and Texas has a total of 217 prisoners on death row
(Death Penalty Information Center [DPIC], 2020). Taken as a whole, the
aggregated writings from these three states allow us to make generalizations
about the population of death row inmates.
The selection of variables and language to understand mental health on
death row was guided by prior research, which suggested the salience of
feelings of powerlessness and lack of autonomy among condemned prison-
ers as central to their life under sentence of death (Johnson, 2019). To accu-
rately account for the discussion of stress and mental decline or illness, the
80 blog entries were coded for the following language: insane/insanity, pain,
mental/mentally, isolation, fear, depression/depresses, help, just/justice, and
hope. Once variables and language were located, the context in which these
variables operated was manually analyzed to identify legal and correctional
procedures. Next, the relationship between variables and language in spe-
cific legal and correctional procedures was examined. Legal procedures, in
turn, were subdivided into the actions taken by the main criminal justice
actors discussed in blog entries: defense attorneys, prosecutors, judges, and

The Prison Journal 101(2)
governors. Correctional procedures were separated into the following cate-
gories: solitary confinement on death row, stays of execution, death watch,
and cell searches. This process yielded 170 quotations, which were then
analyzed for content specific to legal and correctional procedures. After this
step, the most representative quotes in relation to legal and correctional pro-
cedures were selected for presentation and analysis in this article. This anal-
ysis will attempt to paint a nuanced portrait of the influences various legal
and correctional procedures have on the mental health of death row inmates.
Stays of Execution
A stay of execution is an order from the court temporarily suspending the
execution of an individual. Stays of execution are common and are examples
of the high level of procedural due process that characterizes the modern
death penalty (Wright, 2011). After exhausting all other legal remedies, a stay
of execution is the last resort for an inmate on death row. Although stays are
generally welcomed, the uncertainty associated with last-minute stays can be
difficult for the recipient. Many inmates in our sample describe the process of
receiving a last-minute stay of execution as a form of psychological trauma.
Lambrix (2016c), who was on housed on Florida’s death row before his exe-
cution, best exemplified this opinion:
I find it incredible that nobody wants to talk about the undeniable psychological
trauma inflicted upon the condemned through a process that only too often
brings us to that very edge of death’s door, only to then “stay” the execution
and put you in indefinite limbo as you await word of whether you will live or
die. I really just don’t get it. Why is that undeniable trauma amounting to
psychological torture is not even being discussed? (paras. 2-3)

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