"It's the most premeditated form of murder you can possibly imagine and it stays in your psyche forever.”
A recent Gallup poll lists “an eye for an eye” as the dominant argument among Americans that support the death penalty. Using this reasoning to justify carrying out a flawed punishment is illogical. Among the many problems with the death penalty, the sentencing of innocent individuals and persistent racial bias alone are evidence that this already damaging punishment is even more harmful when paired with a vengeful rationale. Revenge-based policy has no place in our society, and only creates more injury without concrete solutions. When our society applies the “eye for an eye” mentality to capital punishment, justice is defined as executing the offender, and other unintended victims of our nation’s machinery of death are ignored or forgotten.
Sadly, those that work closest with the death penalty are often part of this neglected group. Prison workers are forced to endure the reality of what it means to execute a human being, and this does not go without consequence. In 2011, it was found that 26% of corrections officers suffer from depression, almost three times the rate of the general adult population in the United States. There are many reported cases of prison wardens, executioners, and correctional officers suffering PSTD-like symptoms specifically as a result of their involvement with the death penalty. The harrowing experience leads to emotional and physical distress such as mood swings, flashbacks, and nightmares – symptoms encouraged by feelings of shame and guilt that last long after the prison workers have resigned or retired.
Dr. Allen Ault is a former warden of Georgia’s Diagnostic and Classifications Prison, the penitentiary that houses Georgia’s execution chamber. Though he left his post as warden in 1995, in a 2014 interview Dr. Ault admits that he still has nightmares about every execution he supervised. He left the Georgia prison when his growing uncertainty of the punishment became unbearable, believing the punishment is “the most premeditated form of murder you can possibly imagine.” Now an avid opponent of the death penalty, Dr. Ault knows firsthand that it only encourages racial bias without any significant deterrent effect. “I’ve spent a lifetime regretting every moment and every killing,” Dr. Ault says, “ …No one has the right to ask a public servant to take on a life-long sentence of nagging doubt, shame and guilt.”
Jeanne Woodford is another former warden that is now a recognizable leader of the anti-death penalty movement. The first female warden of California’s San Quentin State Prison, Woodford was personally opposed to capital punishment due to her religion, but supervised executions for 5 years before leaving. Once she retired from the corrections field, Woodford publically announced her opposition to the death penalty. She soon became the head of anti-death penalty organization Death Penalty Focus, and was extremely involved in the 2012 SAFE ballot measure that sought to abolish the death penalty in California. She is still heavily involved with California criminal justice and policy projects today. “I still have dreams – nightmares,” Woodford said in 2012. “Asking public servants to kill on behalf of the voters is so harmful to them personally…you look back at your role and think about what good did it do – and the answer is, none.”
It is not only wardens that are harmed by the death penalty. One former Texas prison guard recalls the physical suffering he went through, which began with nightmares. “Even the younger guys get high blood pressure working [on death row],” he says. “There were times I’d get to the entrance of the prison, go through screening and do an about-turn, go back into the parking lot and call in sick.” For him, the worst part was the final preparation before an execution. “They have that look – like they know what’s coming…Man, it’s hard to look at them in the eyes.”
The relationship between prison guards and inmates is a unique one – commonly, working alongside inmates for so long can result in an unexpected bond. “You wouldn’t call them friends, but you understand them a bit. You get that human contact,” the same guard says. “So when you’re getting ready for that last day and they have that lost look in their eyes, you can’t help feeling a little for them.” While the emotional and physical suffering eventually forced this guard to transfer from death row, for other guards it was too late. During one night shift on Texas’ death row, a fellow guard walked out to his car and killed himself with a gun. His body went undiscovered for over an hour.
The death penalty is driven by revenge, not justice. Considering the heinous and tragic crimes that must be committed to warrant the death penalty, the desire for revenge after losing a loved one is human and understandable. But our justice system is not founded on revenge, especially when this very revenge comes with the price of additional and unintended suffering. It is unfair for our society to sentence people to death, but then ask a select few to actually carry out the execution. It is inexcusable that the American public can so easily ignore and hide from the reality of what the death penalty is, leaving prison workers with an overwhelming sense of guilt and shame that is completely undeserved. When American society delivers a death sentence, it is asking prison workers to murder under the guise of justice. Tragically, prison workers see through this deception only after they take part in executions, and they are left to deal with the ramifications of applying the death penalty. America has gone too long without realizing that justice by murder is inherently incompatible. It is time to abolish the death penalty.
The NCADP has created the 90 Million Strong Campaign to unite the voices of those who believe the death penalty is wrong. We need to demonstrate that the broad public support to end this practice is already here in America, and 90 million people speaking up can make a difference.