Death row has fascinated generations. It’s where some of the world’s most notorious criminals have met their just end and, on occasion, where innocents have wrongly been put to death. Many people have wondered what goes through a prisoner’s mind during their final days on Earth; from the remorse they may or may not express to their carefully thought-out last words.
Even though many of those on death row have committed atrocities, they are still treated humanely. Naturally, this has outraged a lot of people. Why should they be treated with respect when they’ve treated others so cruelly? We interviewed a psychologist working on death row in Egypt to gain an insight into this troubling world of forgiveness and retribution.
VT: As someone who works around people who have committed some of the worst crimes imaginable, do you believe in evil?
“The more I see horrible things, the more I believe in the positivity of life. Believe it or not, working with people on death row has made me an [idealist]. I’m not really an optimist. I don’t really believe in a glass half full or empty. I think evil comes out when there’s a lack of kindness and a lack of giving someone a chance. So I don’t really believe that you’re born evil, or that evil comes out on its own. I believe in evil from a religious perspective. There are demons, but I believe that [people] go and seek them out [and] then [they] become evil.”
VT: Do you think there’s anything that can trigger people into committing unthinkable crimes?
“I definitely believe that there’s things that can trigger you into committing unthinkable crimes. Some of them being pressure from society, pressure emotionally, [and] some of them being that [the person in question has] addictive personality traits. [People take drugs] and that obviously [affects] the way that [they] act. I believe that upbringing makes a huge difference [as well as] genetic code. I believe that a wrong combination of upbringing and genetic code would trigger someone to commit evil crimes.”
“Some people who are not evil commit evil crimes. They are pushed to their limit, and they just see red. [If] you’re a doting, loving wife, and your husband keeps abusing you on a daily basis, at some point all of your psychological energy will go into hating him. You won’t have any energy left to think about [your situation] logically. You will do anything you can to get rid of this burden.”
VT: When faced with their impending death, do the majority of prisoners show remorse for what they’ve done?
“Some people who [committed] crimes because they didn’t really mean to, because they were seeing red, and couldn’t control their emotions would feel bad. [But] if you had a psychopath, and they commit a crime, one of the red flags of being a psychopath is that they don’t feel guilty. They feel like they did something for a reason, and they had every right to kill that person and abuse them like that.”
“Some of [the prisoners] don’t [feel remorse] and that would depend upon why they committed the crime. [If they are a psychopath, they can be] fed information to act like they feel remorse. Their lawyers feed them information so that [their psychologists] feel sorry for them, and maybe change the sentence.”
VT: What’s the most disturbing thing that you’ve seen on death row?
“One of the most disturbing ones who actually did get the death penalty was this guy who would rape babies who were six months old and then dispose of them in the trash.”
“I also had a girl who was in the addiction ward, she wasn’t on death row, [and] she killed her mom. She took away her oxygen mask to sell it to buy drugs. And [there was] this other mom who strangled her daughter to death because she threw her drugs in the trash.”
VT: In the West, when we think of death row, we automatically think of the American system. Is it any different in the East?
“I would say it’s quite different in the East. I can’t speak for other countries. But I know our [execution system] is quite primitive so we hang them. There’s no lethal injection [or] electric chair. I know that if it’s a police officer or someone in the army, they shoot them to death.”
“[The prisoners on death row] wear red, not blue. The regular prisoners wear blue. They are in solitary confinement. They never actually tell them when the date is. Sometimes it’s in a month, other times it’s in a day. Which is really scary, I think. They give them one wish, and a priest comes and prays for them and with them. Then they cover their heads and hang them.”
“I think what’s also different in Egypt and in the East is that when you do get a death sentence, you are given a chance to repeal. I would say that most of the people who do get the death sentence don’t end up dying.”
VT: In Egypt, what kind of crimes merit the death penalty?
“[The] number one [reason] is selling drugs in big quantities. If you murder, yes. If you’re in a gang, [you’ll also get the death penalty]. If you’re some sort of mobster, and you kill a lot of people. Rape and obviously the branches of rape so pedophilia and that sort of thing.”
VT: Are you for or against the death penalty?
“I am 100% against the death penalty because I don’t believe in killing someone for killing. You’re essentially doing the same thing. I also went into this field because I thought I’d be able to save some people from the death sentence. I don’t like playing God. That’s my point of view.”
“Anyone who committed a [horrific] crime to the extent where they’d need the death penalty would probably have some sort of mental disorder and that needs to be addressed rather than just killing the person. They might be able to be saved and start a new life.”
VT: Have you encountered any cases where an innocent has wrongly been executed?
“I haven’t had any of those cases yet, but I have heard of such cases. It’s very unfortunate. That’s why I feel like they should repeal, and why there should be a lot of time between evaluating the person and the death sentence.”
“When they send over someone for me to assess, I only get 45 days to see if they are sane or insane, and if they’re fit for trail. I just don’t think that’s enough. If you have something such as bipolar, [a psychologist] would need a lot time to diagnose that.”
VT: On that note, have you spoken with prisoners that you believe are innocent?
“To me, the word innocent is very subjective. I feel like if you have a mental disorder then you’re innocent. Whereas [according to the system] if the mental disorder doesn’t match the crime, then you’re guilty. So, for example, if you have depression, and the act that you [carried out] was a symptom of mania, like a killing spree, then you’re executed. Even though you have a mental disorder, it’s not the disorder that matches anything that you’ve done.”
“[Most people] are innocent because they have mental disorders and didn’t mean it 100%. Unless they’re psychopaths in which case they did mean it, and they’re not innocent. But they are innocent in the sense that they are sick. Usually the people that I’ve talked to haven’t been innocent [in the traditional sense of the word].”
VT: Most of us are able to leave our troubles at work. However, you’re surrounded by a lot of potentially disturbing things, especially as a psychologist who listens to inmate’s problems. Has working on death row affected you?
“First of all, we are told that as a therapist, you need to have a therapist. I usually talk to people who are in the same field because I’m obviously not allowed to disclose anything I know to my family and friends so I can’t do that. But I can talk to other therapists Not necessarily being in therapy. But some things affect me and some things don’t.”
“Knowing that someone is going to die really affects me. Even if it’s not death row, if I have to tell someone that they have HIV, this really affects me, and I could be sad for about a week. Whereas if I talk to addicts, it’s usually my regular day so it doesn’t really affect me that much.”
“Dealing with people on death row, something that is so morbid, has made me more positive which is weird. I saw all the black, and now the colors are much brighter. I’m a much more positive person now than when I [first] started this job.”
“Sometimes I feel like I’ve hardened a bit, and I’ve become a bit immune [to horror]. So I feel like I need to sit alone and do things that remind me of how emotional I am. I don’t like being that hardened person. It gives you this outer shell because you see so much bad, and other people’s problems [compared to those on death row] seem petty, which I don’t like about myself. I take a break, and I sit in nature. I try to look at the things which make me remember why I did this job and why I love it.”
In a world where capital punishment continues to be a source of morbid fascination, our interviewee’s revelations are surprising. When we think of psychologists working on death row, the last thing that we would expect is for their job to affect them in a positive way. But perhaps most surprisingly of all is the fact that a range of factors, including mental illness, can lead to a person being sentenced to death, and these should be taken into consideration with a longer assessment period before they are made to pay the ultimate price.