Capital punishment has existed in Tennessee off and on throughout its history, although the methods have changed. Prior to 1913, the method of execution was hanging and there are few records of those executed by this method. Electrocution became the method of execution in 1916 after a two-year hiatus from the death penalty from 1913-1915. Then there was a period in the state when death row was empty. From 1972 until 1978, there were no inmates sentenced to death in Tennessee because of the U.S. Supreme Court declaring it unconstitutional. When the death penalty became legal in the state again in 1978, those inmates sitting on death row from 1960 to 1978 had their sentenced commuted mostly to life.
In 1998, the state legislature added lethal injection giving those inmates committing their crimes before January 1, 1999 the choice of electrocution or lethal injection. Legislation enacted in March 2000 specifies lethal injection as the primary method of execution. Inmates who committed their offense and were sentenced to death prior to January 1, 1999 may request electrocution.
When capital punishment was reinstated in 1916, records were kept of those sentenced to death by the warden in an "official ledger" that accounted the name, crime, and the time of death of the 125 executed in Tennessee. From 1916 to 1960, all executions took place at the Tennessee State Penitentiary located in Nashville. Tennessee's first execution in nearly 40 years took place April 19, 2000 at Riverbend Maximum Security Institution where Robert Glen Coe was executed by lethal injection.
On February 1, 2007 Governor Bredesen issued an executive order directing the TDOC to review the manner in which the death penalty is administered. All executions were put on hold. On April 30, the department delivered revised death penalty protocols to Governor Bredesen. The moratorium was lifted on May 2, 2007.
On September 12, 2007 Daryl Keith Holton became the first person to be executed by electrocution since 1960.
Today, inmates sentenced to death are primarily housed in a separate unit at Riverbend Maximum Security Institution except for a few inmates who may be housed at the Morgan County Correctional Complex located about 45 miles northwest of Knoxville. The one female inmate sentenced to death is housed at the Tennessee Prison for Women located in Nashville.
The housing and supervision of "death row" inmates are strictly guided by policies and procedures developed by the department. For example, the department has developed a management tool of behavioral levels to supervise these inmates on a daily basis. They are all maximum-security inmates, but they are classified into behavioral levels of A, B, and C. When an inmate sentenced to death first enters the prison system, he or she is a level C, the lowest level. After 18 months, the inmate is reclassified, based on behavior, with the possibility or reaching the next level of B. Then level A can be attained by the inmate. Reaching level A or B means more privileges for the inmate, such as more phone and visitation privileges. Only those inmates with the level A can apply for the few jobs available of death row-- cleaning, food preparation and data entry. An inmate can go to a lower level for misconduct.
The inmates at Unit 2 at Riverbend are awakened around 5:30 a.m. Three meals per day are served to them in their cells. Two meals are served on weekends and holidays. Breakfast is at 7 a.m., lunch at 11, and dinner at 5 p.m. Lights are out by 9 p.m. daily.
For the very few death row inmates housed at Morgan County Correctional Complex, life consists of being locked in their cells 23-hours a day except for an hour of the day for exercise. They have been placed there for a specific reason, such as behavioral problems or security.
Female death row inmates are subject to similar policies as their male counterparts; however they are not housed in a separate housing unit because of the small number of females sentenced to death.