Debate Magazine

If You Love Prison Guards, Fight to End the Death Penalty

Posted on the 08 May 2014 by Alanbean @FOJ_TX


My Grandma says hang everybody

By Alan Bean

This cartoon from the pen of Ronald Giles first appeared in the London Daily Express in 1956, but it was reprised in the Edmonton Journal a decade later when the death penalty debate was white hot.  John Diefenbaker, Canadian Prime Minister and leader of the Canadian Conservative Party, introduced the practice of commuting every death sentence in 1962, but the debate raged throughout the 1960s and capital punishment, in theory if not in practice, survived in Canada until 1976.  (Diefenbaker and Tommy Douglas, incidentally, are both Saskatchewan Baptists who made it big in Canadian politics.)

Public opinion on the death penalty, in Canada and elsewhere, can fluctuate wildly over time.  Only 18% of the Canadian population favored capital punishment immediately after WW2, but support for the grisly institution gradually increased from that point on.

The strongest argument in favor of the death penalty was that it could save the lives of police officers and prison guards by providing a deterrent.

Dr. Jay Chapman

Dr. Jay Chapman

But, as this story on NPR’s Morning Edition makes clear, responsibility for carrying out capital sentences falls primarily on the shoulders of prison officials, often with dreadful consequences.  Dr. Jay Chapman, the man who originated the drug cocktail used for executions in most states, explains that his formula was commonly used by veterinarians to put down animals.  But veterinarians know what they are doing and most of the people involved in your typical execution do not.  Trained medical personnel generally refuse to participate in executions for moral reasons so prison staff get stuck with the dirty work.  In most cases, the NPR piece suggests, these good people are radically unprepared, technically and emotionally, for the burden.

“This is not normal behavior for right-minded humans to engage in,” says Steve Martin, who participated in several executions in Texas in the 1980s. His job was to man the phones in case of a reprieve. He says the whole process is emotionally crippling.

The irony is that a barbaric practice designed to protect prison guards has become a source of nightmares and psychic distress for prison personnel. Last weeks botched execution in Oklahoma was more common than is commonly assumed.

Which brings me back to the cartoon at the top of the page.  Ronald Giles is suggesting that support for the death penalty is driven by a crude form of blood lust personified by the Grandma who would love to see everybody hang.

Madame Defarge

Madame Defarge

Madame Defarge, a Dickens creation from A Tale of Two Cities, had good reason to resent the French aristocracy, but her lust for revenge trumped her humanity.  The Daily Express cartoonist was saying the phenomenon might be universal.  If we want to support prison guards, we should end the death penalty immediately. Are you a death penalty supporter?  Then I urge you to listen to this wonderful piece of radio journalism.

The Executioner’s Lament

by Laura Sullivan

In 1977, death row inmate Gary Mark Gilmore chose to be executed by a firing squad. Gilmore was strapped to a chair at the Utah State Prison, and five officers shot him.

The media circus that ensued prompted a group of lawmakers in nearby Oklahoma to wonder if there might be a better way to handle executions. They approached Dr. Jay Chapman, the state medical examiner at the time, who proposed using three drugs, based loosely on anesthesia procedures at the time: one drug to knock out the inmates, one to relax or paralyze them, and a final drug that would stop their hearts.

The three-drug execution cocktail, which later became known as Chapman’s Protocol, has been the preferred method across the U.S. ever since.

But last week’s botched execution — in the same state where the technique was developed — has raised questions about execution norms. Although the drugs and the question of whether they work are at the center of the debate, the reality is executions are carried out by people, and people sometimes make mistakes.

Many also struggle with their involvement for years afterward.

Chapman’s protocol depends on a number of things that he never foresaw: that in the years to come, doctors and nurses skilled in the art of finding veins would no longer agree to participate; that drug makers in Europe would refuse to allow their drugs to be used; that unregulated pharmacies would have to replicate the drugs, or that prison staff would be responsible for the dosage and the administration.

Chapman supports the death penalty. But he shakes his head at some of the problems.

“In one situation I was made aware of, the needle was inserted into the vein pointing away from the body,” he says. “And I have never even known anybody that would imagine doing that sort of thing.”

There have been all manner of problems: inmates who wake up midway through — or who cry out in pain.

Former prison officers say putting a dog to sleep is one thing; killing a person is something else entirely.

“This is not normal behavior for right-minded humans to engage in,” says Steve Martin, who participated in several executions in Texas in the 1980s. His job was to man the phones in case of a reprieve. He says the whole process is emotionally crippling.

Read more here . . .

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