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Opinion The hidden victims of the death penalty: Correctional staff

In this Nov. 2005 photo, Larry Greene, public information director of the Southern Ohio Correctional Facility, demonstrates how a curtain is pulled between the death chamber and witness room at a prison in Lucasville, Ohio. (Kiichiro Sato/AP)

Allen L. Ault, the former dean of the College of Justice & 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.

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 mind-sets 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.

Read more:

Robert Gebelhoff: The federal government’s new masked executioners

David Von Drehle: The death penalty makes a mockery of our justice system. Abolish it.

George F. Will: Abolish the death penalty

Elizabeth Bruenig: It’s reasonable to want to rid the world of evil. But the death penalty can’t do that.