Last night, Florida completed its second execution of 2023. Louis Gaskin, 56, was put to death for the 1989 murders of a snowbird couple from New Jersey after being sentenced under Florida’s prior unconstitutional capital sentencing statute.
It came six weeks after Donald Dillbeck was executed for the 1990 murder of a Tallahassee woman, and three weeks before the scheduled execution of Darryl Barwick for a 1986 slaying in Panama City.
“Barring any stays for Barwick, it will be the shortest period that three executions have been carried out in Florida since three were put to death within 36 days in 2014 under former Gov. Rick Scott, also a Republican,” the AP reported.
Previous coverage – Explainer: How the state of Florida prepares for an execution
Florida is one of only four states to complete any executions so far this year. It also houses the largest death row population of active death penalty states, or states that still conduct executions, with just under 300 people on death row.
So what is it like on Florida’s death row?
Florida has two death rows
Florida’s male death row prisoners are housed at Union Correctional Institution (UCI) in Raiford, Union County. UCI’s death row capacity is 326 according to Florida Department of Corrections (DOC) officials. There are currently approximately 290 men on death row at UCI.
If UCI were to go over capacity (as they were in 2016, when Florida’s death row population was around 400), the “overflow” would be housed at Florida State Prison (FSP), which is just a few miles from Union.
The death row cells are 6 feet by 9 feet by 9 ½ feet high and do not have air conditioning. When asked why UCI’s death row does not have air conditioning, DOC officials said it’s due to the age of the building, infrastructure, and lack of funding. They said that there are fans and high ceilings in the building and that it is really “not that bad.”
At Lowell, the doors to the death row cells are solid steel with small windows. At UCI, the men are behind bars rather than solid steel doors.
Prisoners on death row wear orange, which immediately identifies them as being sentenced to death. No one else in the system wears orange. Everyone else wears a light blue color – not unlike the scrubs you might see doctors wear at a hospital.
Until recently, those on Florida’s death row were in their solitary cells for 23 hours per day and only allowed to shower every other day. (That is still what DOC’s website says.) That changed at the end of 2022, after inmates filed a federal lawsuit against DOC alleging that the conditions were inhumane.
Under a settlement agreement reached in that case, the state must allow prisoners on death row access to what’s called “day room” for up to 20 hours per week, according to the Death Penalty Information Center.
“Day room” is a cell on each wing of the UCI death row that has been turned into a common area, where inmates can meet with each other and watch television. This change also provides increased access to phone calls and the shower. Inmates now have access to a shower five days per week, DOC officials say.
But the implementation of “day room” has exacerbated already-existing staffing concerns at UCI.
The facility uses a scale of 3 to evaluate its staffing. At level 1, DOC is merely providing inmates with their constitutionally required needs. Level 2 is just above that. At level 3, DOC is able to go above and beyond what is required.
UCI is currently at a level 1, but only with the presence of the National Guard, which Gov. DeSantis deployed in late 2022 to assist with staffing shortages in Florida’s prisons.
As a result, a higher death row population (perhaps in light of the pending legislation that will likely result in more death sentences) means further staffing issues.
Medical care & other programs
Prisoners within DOC receive medical care through various programs, most of which are contracted through Centurion, which is the primary provider of medical services in Florida’s prisons.
If a prisoner in general population develops a mental health issue that requires him or her to be separated from other inmates, the prisoner would likely be transferred to a facility equipped to treat his or her individual needs. For example, a dementia patient would be housed to ensure he or she does not get lost.
For death row, the prisoner would stay put; the explanation by DOC for the difference is that the single cells on death row and prisoners’ lack of ability to walk around the prison minimize issues like getting lost or otherwise having issues that may require other prisoners to be relocated.
Death row prisoners are also treated differently with respect to other programs within the DOC prison system. For example, death row prisoners do not have access to vocational programs, work programs, and incentive programs that are available to other prisoners.
When the Governor issues a warrant for a death row prisoner’s execution, the UCI administration (assuming it is a male) goes to his cell and reads the warrant.
After the warrant is read, the condemned is removed from his cell at UCI and transported to FSP, where “death watch” is located.
Death watch is in the Q-wing of FSP and is just down the hall from the execution chamber. There are 3 cells in the death watch area, which are a bit larger than the standard death row cells at 12 feet by 7 feet by 8 ½ feet high.
Unless a stay or other relief is granted, the condemned stays at FSP on death watch until the time of the execution. (There’s more on the process that occurs between the warrant being issued and the execution here.)
Melanie Kalmanson, a graduate of the Florida State University College of Law, has been a member of The Florida Bar since 2016. She clerked for Florida Supreme Court Justice Barbara J. Pariente in 2016-19 and serves on the steering committee for the American Bar Association’s Death Penalty Representation Project.