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Mental health rarely a concern for executed prisoners

Posted on: September 11th, 2016 in Advocacy, Mental Health No Comments

Earlier in 2016, Texas executed Adam Kelly Ward, 33.

Ward had been on Texas’ death row since 2007, where he was placed after being found guilty of killing a Commerce, Texas, code enforcement officer outside of his home in 2005. At his trial and multiple appeals after his sentencing, Ward’s lawyers repeatedly gave evidence of his having symptoms of bipolar disorder, paranoia and delusions.

According to the National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI), 2 million people with mental illness are booked into jail each year. NAMI also reports that the majority of those people aren’t violent criminals.

However, some are. And some of those mentally ill convicts end up on death row.

Few protections for mentally ill death row prisoners

Atkins v. Virginia was a landmark Supreme Court ruling in 2002, which made the execution of people with what was at the time called “mental retardation” unconstitutional. According to the American Association for Intellectual and Developmental Disabilities, “intellectual disability” is defined by “significant limitations both in intellectual functioning and in adaptive behavior, which covers many everyday social and practical skills. This disability originates before the age of 18.”

Although mental illness can certainly interfere with everyday life, diseases like schizophrenia and bipolar disorders don’t interfere with intellectual functioning, or at least they don’t in the same way mental disabilities like fragile X or Down syndrome do. No such protection exists for those with mental illness. Although the Ford v. Wainwright decision from 1986 ruled that the “insane” could not be executed, the determining of what constitutes insanity is left to the states. Additionally, the 2007 Panetti v. Quarterman ruling said in order for a prisoner to be executed, they must be able to understand the state’s reason for their execution.


However, there is no standard method by which states judge the mental competency of the condemned. The Texas Defender Service (TDS), a nonprofit advocacy group for death penalty attorneys, stated that Derrick Charles, who was executed in 2015 for a triple murder he committed in Houston when he was 19, was never given an evaluation to determine if he was mentally competent to be executed. “The State of Texas run an unacceptably high risk of killing a person whose mental illness is so severe he cannot comprehend why he is being executed,” stated Charles’ lead lawyer Paul Mansur in a TDS press release.

Although data on mentally ill people on death row nationwide isn’t available, mental illness is a serious issue in the country’s criminal justice system.

A solitary issue

In 2014, the U.S. National Research Council reported that one-quarter of the entire world’s imprisoned population was incarcerated in U.S. prisons during 2012. A considerable minority of that population is held in solitary confinement – the exact number isn’t known. Often referred to by terms such as “special management” or “special housing unit,” prisoners in solitary can spend years in confined spaces without any meaningful human contact.

On some levels, this treatment may seem just – maybe even satisfying. Many people in prison aren’t nice people; a prisoner who continues to act like a predator while incarcerated perhaps deserves harsher punishment. However, multiple studies have shown solitary confinement can have devastating effects on a prisoner’s mental health.


A study appearing in the American Journal of Public Health in 2014 outlined several of these effects, including:

  • Self-harm was “strongly associated” with stays in solitary confinement
  • 4 percent of the inmates studied in the paper were mentally ill – and 7.3 percent of the jail terms the researchers studied involved solitary confinement
  • Prisoners who were placed in solitary confinement were nearly 7 percent more likely to engage in acts of self-harm

Findings such as these may have played a role in President Obama’s decision to adopt a list of recommendations from the U.S. Department of Justice. The recommendations include restricting the use of solitary confinement for juvenile prisoners, among other suggestions.

As a leading provider of mental health care, Sovereign Health stays at the forefront of developments in our field. We seek to heal all of our patients without judgment in a stigma-free environment. For more details, please contact our 24/7 helpline.

About the author

Brian Moore is a staff writer and graphic designer for Sovereign Health. A 20-year veteran of the newspaper industry, he writes articles and creates graphics across Sovereign’s portfolio of marketing and content products. Brian enjoys music, bicycling and playing the tuba, which he’s done with varying degrees of success for over 25 years. For more information and other inquiries about this media, contact the author and designer at news@sovhealth.com.

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