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While suicides are still unusual, solitary confinement wears down nearly all inmates. Rob Owen, who directs the Capital Punishment Clinic at the University of Texas Law School, has represented many inmates on death row. When he visits clients, he can see the effects of prolonged isolation. “They have to warm up,” he says. “At first, they’re withdrawn and quiet, and I think that’s because of the isolation.” I recently spoke with three current and former death row inmates. Each reacted to the extreme isolation differently. But all of them suggested subtle reformsmore hours outside the cells, group recreation, replacing the cells’ solid steel doors with barsthat would ease the isolation. Death row will never be enjoyable. It’s not supposed to be. But it could be more humane. As one prisoner, who’s been on death row more than 15 years, put it, “It’s Hell. It really is.” THE LONG-TIMER Nearly 40 men have served at least 20 years on death row. I interviewed one of these longtime inmates. He was convicted of a violent murder. His guilt isn’t in doubt. The Observer agreed to not publish his name or identifying details to protect him from reprisals and to avoid affecting his case. He has been deprived of his freedom and many other small pleasures. He hasn’t hugged his mother, or any member of his family, in two decades. He lives his life encased in concrete. His feet haven’t touched grass or dirt in years. He says that when death row moved to the Polunsky Unit, conditions went from bad to unbearable: “We came over here in 1999. We really didn’t know what to expect. We knew this was going to be more secure. But we didn’t know all the privileges were going to be taken away. We came over here a little hopeful that some of the things we had, we would still have. “It wasn’t until some months that we realized we weren’t going to have anything, not even television. At that point, that’s when despair began to set in. After we were here for a while and saw we were going to be on permanent lockdown until such time that we either got out or were killed. “[At Ellis Unit], we had work detail [in the prison garment factory], and then for the rest of the day, we rec’ed together, go outside, go to the day room, play table games, handball, basketball, whatever. It lasted until about 9:30 at night. But over here [in Livingston], there’s no group rec at all, and you only get two hours a day, five days a week, and everything’s in isolation. “How you do time is all about being philosophically strong and keeping your mind occupied. Once recreation time is over and you in that cell, just sitting there alone, everything comes back to you. You think about your reality. Working, exercising, watching television were forms for temporary escapism, which is a healthy thing. Now, too much of it isn’t healthy. You want to reflect on why you’re here, the changes you need to make in your life and of course, if you’re guilty, you have to think about what you’ve done in this world. You have to have some remorse. “I think everybody [on death row] has had that moment [when they go off the deep end]. I’m not qualified enough to diagnose it. I can’t say whether it was from some depression or what. Fear can be such that it drives you overboard. There have been times I’ve been deeply afraid, I have to admit. Not only for myself, but for friendsguys I’ve befriended, and they wind up with [execution] dates. And that’s another level of isolation, when you’re in that cell and the clock is ticking. “You have to remind yourself to be strong. You have to remind yourself that the people that love you want you to survive this. There’s always people rooting for you. “Prison is a big warehouse. We’ve been thrown in this big waste bin to be disposed of. But everybody doesn’t have that attitude. The people that come here to see us, they recognize our humanity. [He says he receives visitors nearly every week.] They believe that all people have redemptive qualities. That helps. Because if they don’t come here, if no one shows you love, then the decision that judge has made, that the jury has made, you begin to believe it. You’re not worth the air you breathe. That can get into your head. “It is not humane. Even when you tell yourself, `This is prison, this is my fate,’ it still is a hard pill to swallow. I think it’s wrong for the people in here to use what I did to be cruel to me every day. …This environment molds you. It really does. You have to fight against that to stay human. “To live on death row is to live every day in fear.” “To LIVE ON DEATH ROW IS TO LIVE EVERY DAY IN FEAR.” NOVEMBER 12, 2010 THE TEXAS OBSERVER 1 9