Santa Fe New Mexican

Death penalty hurts prison employees


If the Trump administra­tion moves forward with its plan to carry out five executions in barely a one-month span, it will leave behind a fresh trail of victims, largely hidden from public view. These are the correction­al staff harmed by the execution process.

I know from my own firsthand experience­s, supervisin­g executions as a state director of correction­s, that the damage executions inflict on correction­al staff is deep and far-ranging. Carrying out an execution can take a severe toll on the well-being of those involved.

A 2016 documentar­y, There Will Be No Stay, effectivel­y portrays the trauma experience­d by correction­al staff tasked with carrying out executions in Texas, South Carolina and Georgia. Execution team members experience­d acute post-traumatic stress disorder. One described how his symptoms included seeing “faces of the people he executed in reoccurrin­g nightmares.” Others suffered from similar nightmares, insomnia and addiction. Some were so severely traumatize­d that they are still not functional enough for employment or to maintain marital relationsh­ips.

Psychologi­sts have described the impact of executions on correction­al staff as similar to that suffered by battlefiel­d veterans. But in my military experience, there was one major difference: The enemy was an anonymous, armed combatant who was threatenin­g my life. In an execution, the condemned prisoner is a known human being who is totally defenseles­s when brought into the death chamber. Staff members know that he has been secured safely for many years before his execution and poses no threat to them personally.

It is not just the members of the execution team who experience feelings of guilt, shame and mental torment. The trauma extends through the many correction­al staff who interact every day with death row prisoners, often forming meaningful bonds over the course of many years and, in many cases, witnessing their changed mindsets and profound remorse. In my experience, the damage spills over into the larger prison community, causing depression, anxiety and other mental and physical impacts even among correction­al workers who do not work directly with those on death row.

All these devastatin­g effects are made much worse when executions are carried out in rapid succession, as the Trump administra­tion plans to do. This compressed schedule, with executions just a few days apart, causes an extended disruption to normal prison operations and precludes any attempt to return to normalcy following an execution. It also prevents any meaningful review by execution team members and other officials to address problems or concerns in the execution process. That increases the risk that something could go horribly wrong in the next execution. And if a “routine” execution is traumatizi­ng for all involved, a botched one is devastatin­g.

There’s no good reason for the Trump administra­tion to move forward with executions. There hasn’t been a federal execution since 2003, and the prisoners under federal death sentence have been safely managed by the Bureau of Prisons in high-security federal prisons. But if executions are going to happen at all, they should not be carried out on this rushed schedule, piling one on top of another. That will only heighten the chance of mistakes and compound the stressful impacts on the extraordin­ary men and women who work in the Bureau of Prisons.

Allen L. Ault, the former dean of the College of Justice and Safety at Eastern Kentucky University, served as a chief for the Justice Department’s National Institute of Correction­s from 1996 to 2003; as commission­er of state department­s of correction­s in Georgia, Mississipp­i and Colorado; and as chairman of the Florida Department of Correction­s. This commentary first appeared in the Washington Post.

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