CHICAGO (AP) – On federal death row, prisoners fling notes on a string under each other’s cell doors and converse through interconnected air ducts. A top issue these days: whether President Joe Biden will halt executions, several told The Associated Press.
Biden hasn’t spoken publicly about capital punishment since taking office four days after the Trump administration executed the last of 13 inmates at the Terre Haute, Indiana, penitentiary where all federal death row inmates are held. The six-month run of executions cut their unit from around 63 to 50. Biden‘s campaign website said he’d work to end federal executions, but he’s never specified how.
Four inmates exchanged emails with the AP through a prison-monitored system they access during the two hours a day they are let out of their 12-by-7-foot, single-inmate cells. Biden‘s silence has them on edge, wondering whether political calculations will lead him to back off far-reaching action, like commuting their sentences to life in prison and endorsing legislation striking capital punishment from U.S. statutes.
“There’s not a day that goes by that we’re not scanning the news for hints of when or if the Biden administration will take meaningful action to implement his promises,” said 36-year-old Rejon Taylor, sentenced to death in 2008 for killing an Atlanta restaurant owner.
Everyone on federal death row was convicted of killing someone, their victims often suffering brutal, painful deaths. The dead included children, bank workers, and prison guards. One inmate, white supremacist Dylann Roof, killed nine Black members of a South Carolina church during a Bible study in 2015. Many Americans believe death is the only salve for such crimes.
Views of capital punishment, though, are shifting. One recent report found people of color are overrepresented on death row nationwide. Some 40% of federal death row inmates are Black, compared with about 13% of the U.S. population. With growing scrutiny of who gets sentenced to die and why, support for the death penalty has waned, and fewer executions are done overall. Virginia lawmakers recently voted to abolish it.
The prisoners expressed relief at Donald Trump’s departure from the White House after he presided over more federal executions than any other president in 130 years. Gone is the ever-present fear that guards would appear at their cell door to say the warden needed to speak to them – dreaded words that meant your execution had been scheduled.
They described death row as a close-knit community where bonds are forged. All said they were still reeling from seeing friends escorted away for execution by lethal injection at a garage-size building nearby.
“When it’s quiet here, which it often is, you’ll hear someone say, ‘Damn, I can’t believe they’re gone!’ We all know what they are referencing,” said Daniel Troya, sentenced in 2009 for participating in drug-related killings of a Florida man, his wife, and their two children.