Arkansas’ rush to execute will harm corrections officials
By Patrick Crain
There’s a buzz around Arkansas for all the wrong reasons. The state’s slated to do what none other has done – execute eight people in 10 days – all because one of its execution drugs are expiring. Some are worried about what this mass execution could do to Arkansas’s image. As a former corrections officer in Arkansas, my priority is not the state’s image, but the mental health and strength of its Department of Correction. This rush to execution is bad news for the DOC. It’s simply not worth the risks.
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Double executions are rare, which makes sense. An execution is a solemn event. A “double header” risks making a media circus of the proceedings and forcing an execution team to take on more than what is reasonable. A couple of years ago Oklahoma scheduled a double execution, but the first one was so horribly botched they weren’t able to proceed with the second one. This botched execution prompted an investigation and report, which recommended that there should no more than one execution every seven days. By failing to heed lessons from the past, Arkansas is only increasing the risk of failure.
The botched execution in Oklahoma – as well as a number of other botched executions recently – involved the controversial drug midazolam. This drug often proves slow or ineffective in anesthetizing inmates. Despite all the problems with midazolam, Arkansas plans to use it in its upcoming executions.
If things go wrong, corrections officials will suffer. There are some things you can’t unsee, that stick with you, and a botched execution would be one of those things. It’s not as though these are professional executioners – people don’t join the DOC because they want to help execute people. They're more like the volunteer fire department that gets called out occasionally for a barn fire. You don't send those folks into a 5-alarm high-rise fire and expect a problem-free outcome. Yet that’s essentially what Arkansas is doing by scheduling eight executions in 10 days.
Even if no executions end up being botched, I’m still concerned about the psychological impact on officers and their families. Execution team member around the country have testified there’s great trauma in taking a life – even the life of someone who had done something awful. How can an officer go home to his wife and children after having participated in the taking of 8 lives? What will they tell them? Worse, will they just keep it inside? We all know how dangerous that can be.
Corrections officials are brave and valiant men and women who risk their lives everyday to protect us. It troubles me that politicians are so willing to take them for granted and put them in harms way unnecessarily. Politicians, of course, won’t have to live with the emotional consequences of carrying out executions. But corrections officials and their families will be dealing with these consequences for a long time.
The harm could extend beyond those directly involved in the executions and affect the entire department’s morale. Pride in what we do is the glue that holds together the correctional team. Since no one from the outside sees our contributions, unit cohesion is achieved internally. Break that – by making them ashamed of what they are doing or the department they work for – and you're asking for trouble. It's already difficult to hire people willing to work in prisons. What kind of quality hires can you make when you're asking them to join the team that executed eight people in 10 days? I can't imagine good people rushing to join that department.
By rushing to execute so many people, Arkansas is turning the entire process into a macabre circus. When it’s all over, we will be left with broken human beings. And that’s not right. The condemned aren't going anywhere, so there’s no justification to recklessly rush these executions. Our corrections officers deserve better.