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What Is Death Row?

The electric chair is not often used to carry out the death penalty in the US, although it is still optional in some states.
A prison.
San Quentin State Prison, which houses the only death row for male inmates in California.
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  • Written By: Mary McMahon
  • Edited By: C. Wilborn
  • Last Modified Date: 11 July 2014
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Death row is a prison facility or area of a prison where people under sentence of death are held to await their executions. In nations which practice the death penalty, not all have a facility of this kind; some hold their prisoners among the general population or in a generic area of a prison. Usually the security on death row is very tight, and the prisoners held there are subjected to special rules.

If someone is convicted of a crime and sentenced to death, he or she will be transferred to a facility which has a death row or a space in which prisoners under sentence of death can be safely accommodated. Typically prisoners in this area are held in isolation in small cells, and are only allowed out for periodic exercise and supervised visits. Death row facilities also have chambers so that prisoners can meet privately with their lawyers.

Death rows also typically have a death watch chamber. When an execution is imminent, the prisoner is moved to this chamber so that he or she can be closely monitored. This slightly roomier chamber also provides room to meet with a religious officiant and with other visitors. The prisoner may be allowed a last meal of his or her choice.

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In many legal systems, prisoners have the right to an appeal. The number of appeals allowed varies, depending on the legal system and the nature of the offense. In some cases, prisoners may wait on death row for decades as they move through a series of appeals; it is not uncommon for condemned prisoners to die of natural causes, in fact. In other instances, execution occurs rapidly after sentencing.

Japan has a somewhat unique approach to the death penalty. Prisoners are held in extreme isolation and are not technically considered to be prisoners, which allows the government to hold them in a specialized facility. They are not notified in advance of their execution dates and are rarely allowed visitors.

Many nations have abolition movements which are pushing to end the death penalty, arguing that it is an inhumane form of punishment. Such movements also point out that the conditions on death row can be grim, and constitute cruel and unusual punishment even before the prisoner's execution takes place. The solitary lives led by death row prisoners, combined with limited access to entertainment and enrichment, can contribute to the development of mental illness and anguish. While penal reform advocates do not dispute that people who are guilty of crimes should be punished for them, they argue that the death penalty is not an appropriate punishment.

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