Death Row documentary – geography and mobility

“Most people do not know when and how they will die. Death Row inmates do. They are told the exact day, hour and minute of their death, including all the precise details, procedures and rituals of their execution.

Death Row is a documentary series written and directed by legendary feature filmmaker Werner Herzog, telling the fascinating and controversial story of crime and the death penalty. Over the period of a year, Herzog interviewed inmates in America as they awaited their death, uncovering brutal stories of rape and murder.

Death Row is not so much a series about capital punishment as a deep and intriguing insight into the limits of human experience, asking what it feels like to know how and when you will die.” (Channel 4, UK)

There are a few days left for viewers in the UK to watch the first documentary on 4oD. It’s a fascinating piece of TV – particularly because the death row interviewee, Hank Skinner, describes the unusual experience of moving from the holding facility to the execution facility, only to be given a stay of execution, and to return once again to his holding cell.  Herzog teases out Skinner’s thoughts on food, the body, the passage of time, and the 40-mile journey between the holding facility and the execution facility. As Sam Wollaston notes in his review, ‘what Skinner saw out of the truck’s window, the other-worldliness, the noise of the tyres going over the joints in the bridge, the smell of the lake they drove by and the memories that the smell conjured up, memories of freedom’ are particularly evocative.

Although not focusing on the transportation of death row inmates per se, some recent work within geography has considered the transportation of prisoners and has theorised this movement in terms of mobilities and liminality, a state of ‘betweenness’. For example, Nick Gill’s recent paper argues that the increasing mobility of asylum seekers around the UK’s detention estate has significant implications for both the advocacy groups and professionals who hold influence over their experiences, and Dominique Moran et al’s paper contends that contemporary prisoner transport in the Russian Federation serves as an illustration both of punitive power expressed through mobility and of mobility in the carceral context.