Suffering Before Execution


Lee Kovarsky

109 Virginia Law Review


Before their executions, condemned people suffer intensely, in solitude, and at great length. But that suffering is not punishment—especially not the suffering on American-style death rows. In this Article, I show that American institutions administer pre-execution confinement as nonpunitive detention, and I explain the consequences of that counter-intuitive status. A nonpunitive paradigm curbs, at least to some degree, the dehumanization, neglect, and isolation that now dominate life on death row. It is also the doctrinal solution to a longstanding puzzle involving confinement, execution, and the Eighth Amendment.

To understand why pre-execution confinement is nonpunitive, readers need a basic understanding of the experience itself. Most death-sentenced people will lead lives marked by some substantial combination of inadequate nutrition, deficient health care, substandard sanitation and ventilation, restricted movement, and excessive isolation. By the time the state executes its condemned prisoners, they will have spent about two decades in such conditions—up from two years in 1960. The state distributes suffering across this prisoner cohort in ways that bear little relationship to criminal blameworthiness. Almost without exception, however, scholarship and decisional law continue to treat confinement before execution as punishment. 

Virtually everyone makes the punitive assumption, but there are two reasons rooted in penal theory whey they should not. First, confinement before execution does not meet consensus criteria for punishment. It is instead suffering collateral to the state’s interest in incapacitating those who face execution. Second, if pre-execution confinement were to be taken seriously as a punitive practice, then it would be normatively unjustified. More specifically, punitive confinement would represent punishment beyond the legally specified maximum (an execution), and it would be distributed across the death-sentenced prisoner cohort arbitrarily.

There is a well-developed body of constitutional law capable of absorbing a nonpunitive version of pre-execution confinement. Under that law, when the state detains people primarily to incapacitate them, that detention is regulatory—not punitive. Due process, rather than the Eighth Amendment, constrains regulatory detention. A nonpunitive approach would reduce unnecessary suffering because due process rules more stringently constrain the state’s treatment of its prisoners. Such an approach would also give the U.S. Supreme Court better answers to the difficult Eighth Amendment questions that have vexed the Justices for decades.


Full Citation

Lee Kovarsky, Suffering Before Execution, 109 Virginia Law Review __ (forthcoming).