A former commissioner of the Mississippi Department of Corrections has spoken out against the terrible impact of capital punishment on prison staff. Allen L. Ault was responding to this summer’s announcement that the federal death penalty will be resumed after a gap of 16 years.
He is clear that the 5 federal executions scheduled will leave behind “a fresh trail of victims, largely hidden from public view”. He is referring to the correctional staff involved.
Ault speaks from death penalty experience in several states when he claims that post-traumatic stress is even worse for correctional staff than it is for battlefield veterans. This, he believes, is because during executions the person to be killed is “a known human being who is totally defenseless when brought into the death chamber” and “poses no threat to them personally”.
Ault maintains that the “feelings of guilt, shame and mental torment” extend beyond the execution team to other prison staff. Correctional staff often form meaningful relationships over many years with inmates, supporting them as they mature and develop remorse; inevitably those staff are affected when an inmate is then killed. Ault adds that the damage spreads still further, causing “depression, anxiety and other mental and physical impacts” even in staff working in other parts of the prison.
How much greater must this trauma be where the person to be executed has a strong claim of innocence, as Willie Manning has.
No civilized society should inflict this trauma on its citizens. If for no other reason, the death penalty should end.