As Arkansas fights for right to kill eight inmates in 11 days, former prison warden reveals mental toll on executioners
‘The experience is something that will stay with you for a long time; I don’t think it ever goes away’
Putting a prisoner to death “stays with you for a long time,” says Ron McAndrew.
The former warden of Florida State Prison says his own mental health had begun to deteriorate by the time he left his position in 1998 after taking part in eight executions.
Now, McAndrew is fighting against the death penalty.
He is particularly concerned about the psychological well-being of the handful of officials who would be involved if Arkansas were to proceed with the rapid-fire executions of several condemned men, originally set for April 17 to 27.
A federal judge dealt a serious blow Saturday to Arkansas’ unprecedented plan to execute eight inmates in an 11-day period, saying the men have the right to challenge a drug protocol that could expose them to “severe pain”.
Watch: Protesters rally against death penalty in Arkansas
The state appealed US District Judge Kristine Baker’s order hours later, hoping to follow through with its planned executions, with the first scheduled for Monday. Arkansas’ supply of one of its three lethal injection drugs, midazolam, expires April 30 and Republican Governor Asa Hutchinson has said he wants to use the drugs before they spoil.
“We wanted the governor (of Arkansas) to understand that he’s sitting in his office very comfortable. And these men are going to be partaking in a killing of another human being,” McAndrew said.
He doesn’t use the word “execution,” which he considers a euphemism.
“These officers, they get to know these inmates,” he explained.
“Twenty-four hours a day they work with these inmates. They feed them. They take them to get their showers, they take them for exercise. They stand in front of their cells and they talk to them when they feel lonely,” McAndrew said.
“The only persons that the inmates know are the officers. Suddenly it’s the same officer who’s taking them to another room to kill them.”
“The experience is something that will stay with you for a long time; I don’t think it ever goes away.”
McAndrew, who took part in the deaths of eight convicts - three in Florida, and five in Texas as training - says that the executions in Arkansas will undoubtedly be carried out by the same five people.
“You can’t change the team,” he said.
“The officers that will carry out the executions, they have practiced the executions several hundred times. They do it over and over and over again,” he said.
An officer volunteers to play the part of an inmate, he said.
“They take him from the cell, they put them on the gurney, they strap him down, they put them on the IVs,” or intravenous lines.
Arkansas prison authorities have refused to divulge the makeup of their execution team, fiercely protecting the identities of those involved.
“I can say that they are well-trained and qualified to carry out their respective responsibilities,” said Solomon Graves, a spokesman for the Arkansas Department of Correction.
In the view of anti-death penalty activists, everyone involved pays a price.
“We are concerned for the welfare of the prisoners, we are concerned for the victims’ families, we are concerned for the welfare of the prison workers that have to do this,” said Abraham Bonowitz, director of the New York-based Death Penalty Action group.
“There’s a broader range of collateral damage than simply the prisoner and the victim.”
Arkansas’s original packed schedule would place added pressure on the execution team, increasing the risk of error, critics say. And no one wants to see a repeat of the agony Clayton Lockett suffered during his botched execution in Oklahoma in 2014.
“The rapid schedule will put an extraordinary burden on the men and women required by the state to carry out this most solemn act, and it will increase the risk of mistakes in the execution chamber - which could haunt them for the rest of their lives,” said Allen Ault, Georgia’s former commissioner of corrections who has overseen five executions, writing in Time magazine’s March 28 edition.
A group of former officials from all over the United States, including McAndrew and Ault, have written to Governor Asa Hutchinson of Arkansas urging him not to impose such a burden on prison staff.
“Even under less demanding circumstances, carrying out an execution can take a severe toll on corrections officers’ well-being,” the letter said.
“We are gravely concerned that by rushing to complete these executions in April, the state of Arkansas is needlessly exacerbating the strain and stress placed on these officers,” increasing the chance of error.
Arkansas’s original plan to execute eight men in 10 days this month would have set a rate never seen since the United States resumed the death penalty in 1977, the non-profit Death Penalty Information Centre has reported.
Arkansas judge’s decision centres on how three drugs work
Arkansas, which hasn’t put anyone to death since 2005 due to legal challenges and difficulty getting execution drugs, plans to use three drugs to kill eight inmates, including two that are typically used in surgery and one that benefits cardiac patients. The manufacturers of the three drugs object to their use in executions. Here is a look at the drugs:
Midazolam is the key drug in the procedure and one that Arkansas hasn’t yet used in an execution. It would be the first of the three drugs administered and would be used to sedate the inmate. Because the state’s supply reaches its expiration date April 30, Arkansas scheduled eight executions before then.
At normal adult doses of around 4 mg, midazolam can slow or stop breathing to the point that medical literature advises doctors to monitor patients closely. With a 500 mg dose listed in the state’s execution protocol, Arkansas expects that the inmates will not be aware they are dying.
In federal court testimony over the past week, doctors differed on whether midazolam is an appropriate execution drug, though the U.S. Supreme Court has ruled that it is.
In her ruling, US District Judge Kristine Baker said that, regardless of the difference, Arkansas’ execution protocol doesn’t outline what would happen if the inmate were to remain conscious even if given a double dose. She also said the protocol doesn’t lay out what executioners intend to do to ensure that the inmates are unconscious.
In typical medical settings, midazolam relaxes people and produces amnesia.
The second drug, vecuronium bromide, is a muscle relaxant, but not in the typical sense. Rather than being prescribed for tightness or muscle pain, vecuronium is used to prevent muscles from moving so they don’t interfere with surgeons. After receiving the drug, patients must be on a ventilator or they will suffocate because their diaphragm cannot move.
One doctor testified that being given vecuronium bromide without sedation and ventilation would be equivalent to being held underwater. The typical dose is up to .1 mg/kg intravenously, or 8.5 mg for the typical inmate set to die this month. Under Arkansas’ protocol, executioners would administer 100 mg, or more than 11 times the typical dose, five minutes after the midazolam is administered and once the inmate is unconscious.
Medical supply company McKesson says Arkansas obtained its vecuronium bromide under false pretenses and that the state will not return it, even though the company has refunded Arkansas’ money. A state judge Friday directed Arkansas to not use its current supply of vecuronium bromide pending a hearing Tuesday on whether it was obtained properly, though McKesson said Saturday that, with Baker’s stays, it no longer needs the hearing.
Potassium is essential for maintaining a proper heart rhythm, and levels that are too high or too low can cause heart trouble. Medical experts who testified before Baker said that the final drug, potassium chloride, causes considerable pain when injected and is typically diluted when given to patients.
A typical dose is 20 milliequivalents delivered over several hours. Arkansas plans to use 240 mEq immediately after the inmate is injected with vecuronium bromide.
The director of the Arkansas Department of Correction, Wendy Kelley, testified this week that Arkansas was not charged for its current supply of potassium chloride. She said the supplier wished to remain anonymous and did not want to generate a bill of sale to decrease the risk of being identified. According to Baker’s order, Kelley said Arkansas did not obtain its execution drugs directly from any manufacturer, though she wouldn’t say who provided the drugs, citing a state law that allows her department to keep most execution information secret.
The Associated Press previously determined, using package labels, who made the state’s supply of midazolam and vecuronium bromide. Drugmaker Fresenius Kabi intervened in the lawsuit before Baker, saying it believed that potassium chloride Arkansas obtained last month came from its factory. It objects to its use in executions.
Additional reporting by Associated Press