From The New Republic / By Stephen Lurie
Prison cells don’t attract many spectators, but executions have always drawn crowds. Paradoxically, the names and identities of death row inmates only come to matter when their execution had been scheduled: from impending death we take a sudden interest in life.
Despite the incongruity, this isn’t all that surprising. Twenty-first century America is still susceptible to the time-honored spectacle of state-sanctioned death, even if much of the attention now scrutinizes, rather than cheers, the practice. Recently, there have been many stories typical of the current fascination with American capital punishment, most notably Ben Crair’s piece in this magazine and Jeffrey Stern’s in The Atlantic. Like other recent examinations of the death penalty, both accounts focus specifically on the act of execution by lethal injection; each covers botched executions and the question of cruel and unusual punishment in the death chamber itself. Stern’s story centers on the act and ramifications of Oklahoma inmate Clayton Lockett’s execution: A paramedic—and later, a physician—fail to find a vein in a dozen stabs into Lockett’s flesh so the execution can proceed. (Which it does, equally gruesomely.) Crair’s investigation deals with the national execution drug shortage—including Lockett’s experience along with many others—and highlights Ohio prisoner Joseph Wood’s story; his execution was so mishandled that he “gasped and snorted for one hour and 57 minutes… the longest execution in modern history.”
For Stern and Crair, as well as many human rights-minded activists and advocates, the death chamber is a potent and useful example of inhumanity. Other, newer abolitionists—like the legislators in Nebraska that voted to abolish the death penalty there last month—focus on the act of execution as well. While the death chamber is itself horrific, abolitionists would be remiss to ignore the more common punishment: the immense cruelty of a prisoner’s long wait for execution. The “death row phenomenon” and associated prison conditions cause significant psychological and physical harm; a so-called “death before dying” is both internationally condemned and domestically pervasive. If the end to capital punishment in the U.S. is based on concern for human beings—whether in a religious or moral sense—the reform movement must be concerned with the prison conditions left when death is not on the table. (more…)