The mentality was "we are here to kill you," Nate Fields, death row exoneree, told a captivated audience of students at the law school on March 20 as he recounted the non-existent medical treatment he and his fellow prisoners suffered while living on death row.
Fields was sentenced to death in 1985 by a judge who took a bribe to convict him of a double murder that Fields did not commit. Although he was eventually exonerated and freed, Fields spent 20 years in prison and more than 11 years on death row. During that time Fields watched countless fellow inmates, some of whom would have been eligible for exoneration had they lived, die from physical or mental illness due to the lack of proper medical care, Fields said.
"You spend 23 hours a day in a five-by-eight cell with only one hour out per day," Fields explained. Mental illness is rampant and treatment is non-existent, Fields argued. Guards adopted the view that if a prisoner died from mental or physical illness, they were saving the state money, since carrying out their sentence with death by lethal injection cost the state much more, Fields explained. These harsh conditions are just too much pressure for people to take, mental illness sets in and prisoners look for any way to "cut themselves" and end their life, Fields said.
Beyond the mental neglect, prisoners who suffer from serious physical medical conditions go untreated, Fields said. Fields recalled one episode where prisoners had to kick, scream, "bang the bars and make some noise" just to persuade the guards to send one elderly prisoner, who was seemingly suffering from a heart condition, to see a nurse. The nurse sent him back with two aspirins, Field said, a week later he died.
Marc Bookman, Executive Director of the Atlantic Center for Capital Representation, who joined Fields, pointed out that stories like Fields' are not uncommon. Part of the problem is inadequate representation due to poor lawyer compensation, Bookman said. Bookman advocated for an increase in appointed defender compensation. Not so lawyers might benefit monetarily but so clients might be matched with experienced lawyers, ones that have a vested interest in their client's well-being, Bookman concluded.