Some sanity on California's death row

A 40-unit psychiatric hospital for death row inmates at San Quentin is as welcome as it is ironic

The decision by California prison officials to create a 40-unit psychiatric hospital for death row inmates at San Quentin is as welcome as it is ironic.

Why is it welcome? According to a federal court-appointed mental health monitor, 37 of more than 720 condemned men on San Quentin's death row are so mentally ill that they require 24-hour inpatient care.

That includes inmates such as Justin Helzer, who thought his brother was God and helped him kill five people. In prison, Helzer, who was diagnosed as schizophrenic and delusional, jabbed pens through the sockets of his own eyes and deep into his brain. He survived that 2010 suicide attempt, but after being returned to his cell and promising to take his drugs and attend therapy, he kept trying to kill himself. His fourth try worked; he hanged himself last year with a bed sheet.

Death row has no facility for treating such prisoners; the condemned men at San Quentin currently receive minimal and wholly inadequate treatment. While it is understandable that many Californians feel little or no sympathy for people like Helzer who have committed heinous crimes, everyone should agree that the state has a moral responsibility to treat the human beings in its care — even murderers — humanely. That applies not only to their physical health but to their mental health as well. Locking the mentally ill into cells without treatment is medieval.

Yet the ironies are also obvious in seeking to restore mentally ill death row prisoners to a minimal level of sanity in order to kill them. It may be legally necessary, because federal courts have ruled it unconstitutional to execute people who are unaware of what is happening to them, but it is a strange idea. As one death penalty expert observed, "It is a measure of American greatness and American silliness at the same time." Besides, how sane can a man be when he is always expecting to be executed (although the sentence may not actually be carried out for 20 or 25 years, if ever)? Whose psyche wouldn't suffer in such a house of horrors?

And so the absurdities roll on. California executions have been on hold since 2006 because the state has been unable to come up with a constitutional way to kill people. Those who would be best at it — doctors and nurses — usually refuse to take part in the system for moral reasons, and pharmaceutical companies often won't provide the killing drugs.

The death penalty is bad public policy and should be abolished. It is inconsistently applied, subject to manipulation and error, and morally wrong. For the state to kill a person as punishment for killing someone else is a macabre inversion of "do as I say, not as I do." Capital punishment is also terribly expensive, and even its deterrent effects have been widely questioned.

But as long as we're stuck with this insane practice, we must treat the condemned humanely and with basic dignity. To do so is to meet our fundamental responsibility as a civilized society.

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