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New Data Connect the Federal Executions and a COVID-19 Outbreak in Indiana

A death penalty protestor carries a sign that reads "the death penalty is not justice."
The government’s rush to resume federal executions for the first time in 17 years during a pandemic has caused senseless risk for incarcerated people, prison staff, and everyone who lives in Terre Haute, Indiana.
A death penalty protestor carries a sign that reads "the death penalty is not justice."
Henderson Hill,
Senior Counsel, Capital Punishment Project,
American Civil Liberties Union
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September 22, 2020

In the past 10 weeks, the federal government has executed more people than in the last 57 years combined. This streak of fatalities are the result of Trump’s crude and cruel election-year efforts to prove himself as the “law and order president.”   

Now, the ACLU has received new, bombshell information about the high cost of President Trump and Attorney General William Barr’s rushed execution policy. The new data — which became available after the ACLU submitted a Freedom of Information Act request last month — speak loudly about just how willing this administration is to disregard the health and safety of the many to push its law and order agenda forward.

According to the documents, a BOP staff member worked with “a lot” of staff and “a lot of prisoners” while sick with Covid-19, without wearing a mask. The BOP tested just 22 staff, even though a previous declaration shows that the infected staff member was likely in contact with at least 100 people. The documents show that several of the staff members who came in contact with him declined testing, and the BOP adopted a risky new policy that allowed infected staff to return to work after just 10 days of no symptoms, without being retested for the virus.

Three people at Terre Haute prison have died from COVID-19 — two just last week — and many more have become sick, hospitalized, and held in solitary confinement as COVID-19 ravages the facility. This was all the predictable, preventable, and senseless result of the federal government carrying out the first federal executions in 17 years during a pandemic.

Trump’s deliberate decision to “play down” the threat of the pandemic undoubtedly encouraged the lax administrative conduct of the BOP and the reckless conduct of individual prison employees. From Bob Woodward’s Rage, we know from Trump himself that eight months of declaring COVID-19 a hoax, of sidelining and disparaging public health experts, and maligning mask-wearing Democrats, was a lie — a level of mendacity unheard of in the American political tradition. Two hundred thousand American lives have been lost to the pandemic, and to Trump’s version of American exceptionalism.

Given the revelations in Rage, is there any wonder that Trump and his DOJ would break and bend the law and legal processes in carrying out five executions this summer?  Trump’s executions broke every rule for reducing COVID-19 risks, and spikes in COVID-19 cases at Terre Haute were the predictable result. People without death sentences are dying so that Trump can kill death row prisoners during a pandemic.

Such collateral damage was all but guaranteed, given the well documented super-spreader nature of prisons, and the compounding factors of travel required by these federal executions. The BOP didn’t even bother to require staff to wear masks, according to the FOIA documents we received.

In July 2019, the Federal Government announced that it planned to move forward to schedule executions of federal prisoners for the first time nearly two decades. Then, on June 15, 2020, new execution dates were made public. Just days after this announcement, the United States had back-to-back record highs in daily new COVID-19 infections. In response to these growing numbers, accompanied by a rising death toll, many states paused their reopening plans and some even began imposing restrictions they had lifter earlier.

Meanwhile, the Federal Government gathered hundreds of people at FCC Terre Haute, a facility with known cases of COVID-19, for the purpose of carrying out the executions of Daniel Lee on July 14, Wesley Purkey on July 16, and Dustin Honken on July 17. Following the back to-back July executions, the county where the prison is located experienced a major surge in confirmed COVID-19 cases.

In spite of this public health outcome, the federal government proceeded to execute Lezmond Mitchell and Keith Nelson at FCC Terre Haute on August 26 and 28, respectively. This week, the federal government plans to execute two more people: William LeCroy and Christopher Vialva.

So, let’s review what the ACLU’s FOIA findings tell us about Trump and Barr’s execution spree:

  • The lives of BOP staff members do not matter
  • The lives of family members (of victims and of prisoners) who participate in federal executions don’t matter
  • The lives of lawyers and journalists whose professional responsibility compels them to participate in the execution process, do not matter

The federal government’s failure to protect the American people from COVID-19 cannot be obfuscated by its decision to rush through the first federal executions in nearly two decades. Indeed, the data make clear that those topics are intrinsically related. The pandemic has shown us that our health and well-being are more connected to one another’s than we even realized. Despite Trump and Barr’s wishes, there is simply no way to ignore the health, safety, and humanity of incarcerated people, without degrading our own. 

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