Anti-death penalty crusader Kathleen A. O'Shea was featured in the Winter 1999 CUA Magazine, published by The Catholic University of America, for her pioneering work raising questions about women on death row. She spoke recently with Register Radio News correspondent Rich Rinaldi.
Rich Rinaldi: How many women are now on death row?
Kathleen O'Shea: Right now there are 48 women.
Does your study look at the world or just the United States?
My study was only in the United States and it covered the period from 1900 to 1998.
Bring us up to date about the conditions of the women on death row. There are some unusual things happening on death row, like the women in Idaho and others.
Yes, that's one of my big concerns because women on death row are so few. Many of them are isolated. Right now there are eight women in Idaho on death row. For the most part they are kept in special isolated cells which we would refer to as the kind of cell [where they] are sent when they misbehave in prison.
These women have little contact with anyone and basically we don't know about them. We don't know what happens to them. The people who are in charge of that area have total power over them. I know from personally interviewing wardens that basically they don't bother with what goes on. I spoke to one woman warden. I asked her if she knew of the women on death row in her prison — she had four; … had she ever been there to see them. And she told me, No, that she didn't do that because she didn't want to become personally involved with that area.
You speak of women in Idaho who haven't seen anybody for four years and are isolated for 23 hours a day.
Outside of the people who are in charge of that area, one of the things I want to talk about, for example, is that women are only allowed to have showers three times a week. And when they go to shower, they go in shackles and handcuffs. Now why would someone be taken five feet down the hall to a shower in shackles and handcuffs? To me, that's a cruel and unusual punishment. There is no need for it. … And one woman told me that has changed, from shackling or handcuffing her in front of her, to putting her handcuffs behind her back so that, if she walks to the shower, she has to carry everything. There are men who take her to the shower. If she drops her soap or washcloth or something like that, she has to squat down backwards and pick this up off the floor. That's totally unnecessary.
The other kind of thing they are never allowed, like in some states, … [is] one phone call a week. Most of these women have several children. This is a very difficult thing for them not to be able to talk to their children and families.
Some of them are allowed only four envelopes a month. Paper, pens, any kind of personal hygiene stuff, they have to pay for themselves. These are, for the most part, poor women with no money. If their families have any money it's going toward their cases. So, where could they get pen and paper and that kind of thing?
Why is it that women are being treated differently than men or is this unique to just death row inmates?
Yes, it is.
When I talked to those people in charge of it, they told me … there's no gender thing. It's solely economic. But I have difficulty in believing that.
They say that because there are so few women in the prisons, they cannot afford to hire personnel that would give these women the same kind of treatment that men are allowed. For example, to group with each other and recreate, or at least that women be allowed to have three pairs of underwear a week. … Women write to me and tell me they need clothes.
You have mentioned different methods of execution that some of these women may be facing.
We have execution by electric chair, by lethal injection, gas and firing squad. Idaho has a firing squad and there is a woman there who will be put to death that way. Delaware has hanging as a possibility. There are no women on death row now in Delaware, but it is the method.
Some of these sound bad and you talk about botched executions. It sounds like these are not a straightforward, humane way to treat people.
In Florida … there was a case of Pedro Medina who was executed and the hood that was put on his head, the metal hood, when they applied the electricity, the hood caught fire. He was still alive and nobody knew what to do because it never happened before.
They turned it off so the fire would go out. The fire went out. He was still alive so they said, “We have to execute him; let's do it again.” And the hood caught fire again. So, they left it on and he basically was burned to death. It didn't work.
A lot of times people have had lethal injections and … [the executioners] couldn't find the veins. One time the thing slipped out of the vein and they had to go back in to reinsert it. One time one guy sat up and said, “It's not working; I'm not dead.” And so they had to do it again. We don't know that a lethal injection is painless because they give them a drug that paralyzes them. So, basically, the person they paralyze can't tell us whether or not they're in pain. People are doing studies now tell us that the solution that is used in lethal injections is very painful.
You mentioned that a woman may be facing hanging. That has to be considered unusual punishment?
There was a woman hanged in Arizona at one time. When she was hanged, she was decapitated — which is always a possibility in hangings.
Rich Rinaldi is director of Register Radio.