When Arkansas announced that it planned to kill eight men over a span of 11 days, two per day, beginning the day after Easter, many people reacted with shock and horror. That number has been reduced to seven, since last week the state parole board recommended that the sentence of one of the men be reduced to life without parole. Still, the barbarity of the plan was unprecedented. The Death Penalty Information Center said no state has ever executed that many people in that short a period of time.
For many who have worked in prisons or with correctional officers, the horror was compounded by concern for the men and women who would carry out these executions, who would, in reality, be taking part in a mass killing.
“I had 10 executions in 13 months that I witnessed and I can tell you that it was devastating emotionally and extremely difficult in terms of trauma. And I wasn’t even in the execution room, I was in the witness room,” says Brother Dale Recinella, the Catholic chaplain on Florida’s death row.
Frank Thompson was in the execution room when Oregon State Penitentiary executed two men while he was superintendent (warden) there. “Executing seven people in 11 days is abominably inhumane,” he says. “Our correctional officers are put in an arena of conflict and horror where their risk of trauma is extremely high.”
The fact that many correctional officers suffer from PTSD is well documented. One 2011 study, conducted by the nonprofit Desert Waters Correctional Outreach and reported by the Guardian, estimated that 34 percent of corrections officers have PTSD, compared to 14 percent of military veterans. And the same organization published research showing that “the suicide rate among corrections officers is twice as high as that of both police officers and the general public,” and that “the risk of suicide for COs is 39 percent higher than all other professions combined.”
Because of legal challenges and its difficulty in obtaining lethal drugs, Arkansas hasn’t executed anyone since 2005. Arkansas Governor Asa Hutchinson says the state is in a hurry now because of the two drugs it has on hand, one, midazolam, expires at the end of April. A second drug, vecuronium bromide, is good until next March. The third drug it needs for its lethal drug cocktail, potassium chloride, was obtained last month, one week after the governor set the execution dates.
Besides the inhumanity of killing seven people in 11 days, there are also critical practical objections. Midazolam has been used in several botched executions around the country. In Oklahoma in 2014, Clayton Lockett took almost 40 minutes to die in an execution one witness said was “like a scene out of a horror movie.” After being injected with midazolam, Lockett writhed and moaned, and said he felt as if his body was on fire. “No state has successfully executed two prisoners on the same day using midazolam,” according to DPIC.
A second execution that was scheduled to take place shorty after Lockett’s was postponed because of the problems incurred during his execution. A grand jury convened to investigate the Lockett execution said scheduling two executions in one night added to the stress of the prison staff.
So it begs the question what kind of stress will be placed on a staff that is tasked with executing seven men over 11 days.
“President Obama put together a special team to take out Osama Bin Laden,” says Thompson. “Those people knew full well what they were getting into. They were hyper-trained, they had each other, they knew how to prop each other up, get the job done. Every possible scenario was rehearsed. But none of that is part of the preparation for correctional officers. That kind of training would prevent the horrible mistakes that have taken place in previous botched executions. To ask that group [in Arkansas] to go in and do it repeatedly over 11 days is unconscionable.”
“How dare we ask these good officers and staff to do this for us as their job. How arrogant is that?,” asks Brother Dale. “I pray that what we call humanity — our humanity — will intervene and someone will stand up and say, ‘We can’t do this.”