News Release icon Contact: Media Relations Office (518) 956-8150


Waiting to Die 

Distinguished Teaching Professor James Acker. 

ALBANY, N.Y. (June 27, 2018) – Imagine knowing that you are sentenced to die.

But now, through appeals and delays, you sit in a tiny prison cell on death row for months, then years, aging as you wait to die. You prepare to die, not knowing if there will be a last-minute reprieve or delay.

You spend long stretches in solitary confinement. When not isolated, you may be allowed out of your cell for one or two hours a day.

This is the scenario painted in a new book, Living on Death Row: The Psychology of Waiting to Die (American Psychological Association 2018), edited by two UAlbany School of Criminal Justice professors, Hans Toch and James R. Acker, and Vincent Martin Bonventre of Albany Law School.

The book is a collection of chapters by academics and professionals in mental health and law, criminologists and prison officials knowledgeable about what happens to the minds of prisoners on death row. Edited with a clarity that makes it accessible to a lay audience, the book opens a window into a population rarely considered. It also contains personal accounts from death row inmates including Joe D’Ambrosio, who was imprisoned for 22 years under a sentence of death for a murder he did not commit.

D’Ambrosio was convicted of the murder of 19-year-old Anthony Klann in 1989 and for more than two decades lived on Ohio’s death row, staying in his cell during his free time and working on his legal appeals. He describes a complete dehumanization of the prisoners and his own humiliation even during the rare times he was allowed a visitor.

“It had the effect of making me feel like a modern-day leper, an untouchable. My nightmare circumstances and my shame were on display not only to family and friends but also to other visitors who happened to catch a glimpse of my Jacob Marley-like appearance as I was paraded to my assigned cubicle. Innocent or not, the embarrassment and humiliation were beyond description,” wrote D’Ambrosio.

Many years later, the courts found that key evidence was withheld by prosecutors and D’Ambrosio became a free man.

book jacket

UAlbany and Albany Law School scholars collaborated on the book.   

The book’s introduction notes that during colonial times, “executions might follow as soon as two to four days after sentencing.”

This is no longer the case. Inmates “executed in 1984 spent just over six years under sentence of death. By 2004, the average gap between sentence and execution nearly doubled, to 11 years.” Prisoners executed in 2016 spent an average of 18.5 years on death row, some confined for more than three decades. Roughly two-thirds of capital convictions “or sentences imposed between 1973 and 1995 were vacated by later court action.”

Several of the chapters present the argument that death row isolation not only is psychologically devastating, but that it is unnecessary to guard against violence against other prisoners or corrections officers.

Toch, a distinguished professor emeritus at UAlbany, was one of the founders of the School of Criminal Justice.  A fellow of the American Psychological Association and the American Society of Criminology, Toch is a psychologist and an internationally recognized scholar in the study of prison environments. Acker, a distinguished teaching professor, earned his J.D. at Duke Law School and his Ph.D. at UAlbany. His scholarship has focused on the death penalty, wrongful convictions and criminal law. Bonventre, J.D., Ph.D., is the Justice Robert H. Jackson Distinguished Professor of Law at Albany Law School and an expert in criminal law and state constitutional law. He was selected by former Chief Justice Warren Burger to serve as a Supreme Court Judicial Fellow.

RSS Link For more news, subscribe to UAlbany's RSS headline feeds

About the University at Albany
A comprehensive public research university, the University at Albany offers more than 120 undergraduate majors and minors and 125 master's, doctoral, and graduate certificate programs. UAlbany is a leader among all New York State colleges and universities in such diverse fields as atmospheric and environmental sciences, business, criminal justice, emergency preparedness, engineering and applied sciences, informatics, public administration, social welfare, and sociology taught by an extensive roster of faculty experts. It also offers expanded academic and research opportunities for students through an affiliation with Albany Law School. With a curriculum enhanced by 600 study-abroad opportunities, UAlbany launches great careers.