Johnson was at least the seventh death row inmate known to take his life in Texas since that state reinstated executions in 1974. The Death Penalty Information Center estimates 301 people have died on death row from "natural causes," including suicide, from 1973 to 2004. No reliable statistics exist on the number of death row suicides in the United States.
His suicide also raised the subject of mental illness in death row prisoners. Prisoner advocates and psychiatrists believe that many death row inmates -- between 12 and 25 percent -- have severe mental illness. Those estimates come from a psychiatrists like Dr. Jeffrey Metzner, a Colorado-based doctor who specializes in correctional psychiatry, and a national mental health organization.
"Suicides are rare on death row but they do happen," Richard Dieter, of the Death Penalty Information Center in Washington D.C., told IPS in an interview. "Given that mental illness among death row inmates -- who must always live under unbearable stress -- is growing, this may be an issue for the future."
Some inmates enter the correctional system already ill, while others develop symptoms during their stay, Metzner said. In contrast, in some cases, the stable routine of prison life has helped them mature.
"There's no question that as the total number of psychiatric beds in U.S. prisons has decreased the number of mentally ill in prisons and on death row has increased," Metzner told IPS.
Some of the more common psychiatric problems affecting death row inmates, according to Metzner, are schizophrenia, depression, substance abuse, and "probably some history of head trauma."
While the U.S. Supreme Court banned execution of severely mentally retarded people in 2002, it remains legal for states to kill the mentally ill. One problem defenders have is that there are no standardized legal definitions for mental illness. Different states define it in various ways.
Mental illness can be defined as anything from depression to bipolar disorder, from post-traumatic stress syndrome to paranoid schizophrenia. Johnson, for instance, most likely suffered from depression, but could have also shown signs of post-traumatic stress syndrome -- a mental illness common in death row inmates.
It is difficult to draw the line in determining which of those inmates would be eligible for the psychiatric ward and which should be scheduled for execution.
The state of Texas, where Johnson lived, ranks first in the number of people executed in the U.S. It also ranked 46th among the states for amount of money spent per person on the treatment of the mentally ill, including in jails and prisons, according to the National Association of State Mental Health Program Directors.
Moreover, while the general public assumes that punishments are meted out based on the severity of a crime, the Supreme Court has also ruled that the character and background of a defendant must also be considered when determining the sentence. That would include whether a defendant suffers from mental illness.
"Theoretically the issue of mental illness should be a factor when sentencing a person to death," Metzner said. Too often, he said, it is a factor not raised or emphasized.
Still, one psychiatrist said he believed prison can help some inmates mature. For example, a 19-year-old who commits homicide may have come from a world that was skewed by the environment of poverty and probably did not have a stable home life, said Dr. Robert T.M. Phillips, who practices in Annapolis, Maryland.
"On death row, they're going to be in a very stable environment. They're going to get three meals a day, for example, which they may have never had before. Stability can bring maturity. They're going to start and finish their days at punctual times. They will be assigned responsibilities such as the cleaning of their cells, and they may have never had to cope with the concept of responsibilities before," Phillips said in an IPS interview.
But, prisoner advocates counter, society should not wait until an inmate has been sentenced to death before providing a person with a stable environment. Moreover, once a crime has been committed, a stable routine is also established among prisoners who have been given life sentences.
"They are simply different individuals over the 10 or 15 years that it usually is since they were convicted of killing someone. They are far more stable, both emotionally and on a mature side, than when they first went in... it never ceases to cause wonder in me," Phillips said.
This suggests that some murderers can indeed be rehabilitated and should not be executed, argue human rights activists.
Nevertheless, for every person who attains greater psychological maturity in prison, there are those -- like Johnson -- whose mental state deteriorates.
Death row inmates can become progressively depressed and are in an isolated environment, usually for 23 hours a day, which can lead to mental deterioration, Phillips said.
Metzner echoed Phillips' sentiments: "It's clear that there have been people sentenced to death, who have been executed, who have had some sort of mental illness," Metzner said.
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Albion Monitor November
6, 2006 (http://www.albionmonitor.com)
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