Prison Commentary: The Executioners on Death Row - Week 9

Prison Commentary: The Executioners on Death Row - Week 9

Course: HNRS 302: Extreme Punishments: Life, Death, & Solitary Confinement
Written: March 12, 2014 

Published: March 3, 2017
© All Rights Reserved

Written during Destiny's junior year of college, Destiny poignantly provides commentary and reflection on readings for the week for a University Honors course titled "Extreme Punishments." Each reading required the illumination of the following 4 structure components: takeway(s), a free write, a quotation(s) of interest, and a question(s). 

Week 9: Death House: Executioners at Work


Clutching at Life

  • Delays in sentencing cause both physical and psychological effects on the inmate
  • Although a death row inmate hasn't been sentenced to death, they have already been convicted of a crime; therefore, they are labeled as "condemned." As a result, this may explain the delays in sentencing
  • Some inmates on death row adopt "psychological defense mechanisms" to cope with the fact that they will be put to death and avoid depression while waiting (pg. 65)
  • Mock execution relates to an inmate having a planned and set execution date, then it is delayed (pg. 68)

In Cold Blood

  • On a deeper analysis and similar to “Clutching at Life, I realized that both inmates and execution officers may use “psychological defense mechanisms” to cope with execution (coverpage quote)
  • Perhaps, Gary Gilmore used the defense mechanism of not fearing death, although he was deemed a celebrity or rarity to some (pg. 124)
  • Gary Gilmore practiced the art of rejection: ‘reject the fact that I fear death, receive leaner treatment’ (pg. 124)
  • Abuse can trigger resistance from the inmate during the execution process
  • However, there’s a possibility that execution officers are more mindful only because they are being watched. In this way, Hawthorne effects may take place.
  • It was surprising to read that one officer thought there was a correlation between consoling inmates and them committing suicide (pg. 157)
  • Mock execution can cause ambiguity and anxiety for some execution officers (pg. 162)


Selected Poems on the Death Penalty: The Iceman Killeth

The word "killeth" in the poem's title has a biblical context with the archaic third-person singular form of the word "kill." All in all, this poem gives personification to execution--the act of killing (sentence 1-4). The sentence "he is admired and feared," reflects two perspectives (sentence 4). "Admired" could be from the perspective of the victim's family or the justice system.  "Feared" could be from the perspective of the inmate--fearful of the execution. By extension, this phrase is repeated in the 2nd stanza. Here, the use of repetition anchors the fact the execution is complex--feared by some and admired by others.  The phrase "Cold as ice, hard as steel" relates to both the execution table/bed and the act of killing (sentence 3). Here, the author uses imagery to relate to the poem context. Repetition is also used in the phrase "punishment hurts" (stanzas 2 and 3). Just like the sentence "he is admired and feared," the phrase "punishment hurts" reflects those two perspectives that I discussed earlier--the victim and the inmate. Both of these perspectives are a recurring theme presented in the poem. In this way, the poem’s premise sheds light on the fact that execution (the act of killing) is perceived differently by different people.

Pod People: When I Get Out of Solitary and Pod People

Taken literally, the tone of the first section "When I Get Out of Solitary" sounds retaliatory, angry, and aggressive (stanzas 1-14). The theme is that violence is the antidote for justice (stanzas 1-4). In my eyes, the best "retaliation" if an inmate where to be released would be mindful and non-violent living, rather than shooting or violence. However metaphorically, the author touches on the simple principle of the golden rule: treat others the way you want to be treated (stanzas 7-12). In the author's eyes, the justice system is committing the very same crimes that they are punishing prisoners for. This reminds me of the quote: "An eye for an eye will only make the whole world blind" by Gandhi. Reference of this phrase by Gandhi is also in the bible (Matthew 5:38) In this way, a murder for a murder doesn't lead us anywhere-but commits the same crime our justice system punishes other for. By extension, "Pod People" adds imagery to the act of killing (stanza 1).


  • "Cold as ice, hard as steel unable to feel the harm we do in the name of justice." -Selected Poems on the Death Penalty: The Iceman Killeth (pg. 3)
  • "Inmates speculate about the mechanics of electrocution and its likely impact on the body which they visualize in vivid detail." -Clutching at Life (pg. 65)
  • “Abuse is not only unprofessional but impractical, because it is likely to trigger resistance.” -IN Cold Blood (pg. 129)
  • “Even gross racial slurs can be exchanged with impunity.” - In Cold Blood (pg. 158)
  • "To be a Somebody not just a somebody" -Pod People (pg. 2)


  • Do you think mandatory time frames for the post-sentence process of death row inmates would help or hinder the process?
Back to blog

Leave a comment

Please note, comments need to be approved before they are published.