The Psychological Burden of the Death Penalty

Riverbend Maximum Security Institution, which houses Tennessee’s death row

Mock executions at Riverbend shed light on the weight of state killings

By Steven Hale, Nashville Scene

Several years ago, in the middle of the Christian Holy Week leading up to Easter, an execution team strapped Jeannie Alexander onto a gurney at Riverbend Maximum Security Institution in Nashville.

Alexander was then the head chaplain at the prison, which houses Tennessee’s death row. She is an ardent death penalty abolitionist, but she’d worked closely with the execution team because, she says, “I believed that somebody needed to be there who did not want this person to die.”

On that day, the execution team — more than a dozen people with various responsibilities, from extracting the condemned prisoner to locating a vein suitable for lethal injection — was participating in a training session, a mock execution known to many inside the prison as “band practice.” In this instance, they didn’t have anyone to play the part of the condemned, a role staffers refer to as the “victim.” The atmosphere during these rehearsals, Alexander says, was typically very somber. But on that occasion, she says the team was cutting up, attempting to break the tension with laughter. She recognized it as diffused nervousness, a byproduct of the stress that weighs on people preparing to practice an execution. But it didn’t sit well with her.

“I thought, ‘You know what, they’ve got a woman on death row,’ ” Alexander says. “ ‘Christa Pike’s on death row. Let’s make them execute a chaplain. Let’s make them execute a woman and see how that affects this attitude.’ ”

She volunteered to be the victim. She was shackled, lifted onto a gurney and wheeled into the execution chamber, where they injected saline solution into her veins.

Alexander has since founded No Exceptions Prison Collective, an advocacy organization through which she works with current and former prisoners, their family members, and others. She describes the mock-execution experience as surreally spiritual and also as a sort of trauma. And she struggled with whether to share the story on the record, fearing a perception that she had collaborated with a process she has dedicated her life to opposing. In fact, her motivation had been just the opposite: a conviction that the humanity of everyone involved in the death penalty — from executioners to the condemned — must be brought into focus at every turn.

“You are constantly, I think, if you’re working there, engaged in some level of dehumanization,” Alexander says. “You have to be. Which of course dehumanizes you, as well.”

Ignoring internal warnings that using a new three-drug lethal injection cocktail could go disastrously wrong, Tennessee is pushing forward with plans to resume executions this year. Attorney General Herbert Slatery last month asked the state Supreme Court to schedule eight executions before June 1, a streak of state killings that would have been unprecedented in modern Tennessee history. (There were nine executions over the course of three months in 1939.) The court denied the request earlier this month, but there are still five executions scheduled for 2018. And while Slatery, Gov. Bill Haslam and the state lawmakers baying for the blood of condemned prisoners keep their distance, the responsibility for carrying out those executions falls to others — a warden, a physician and a collection of other prison staffers whose low-paying jobs may soon entail putting people to death. They, along with the prisoners, victims and their families, are part of a small population of Americans who walk around bearing the weight of the death penalty.

In conversations with people who have come into contact with the process from a variety of different angles, there is a palpable sense that proximity to executions is a trauma that lingers. Some people contacted by the Scene preferred not to speak about it on the record or asked to remain anonymous. Former Riverbend warden Ricky Bell, the only warden to oversee an execution in Tennessee in the modern era (he oversaw six between 2000 and 2009), has long declined to speak publicly about how it affected him personally. And even people who worked closely with him say they’ve never had a conversation with him about the experience.

For others, a stint inside the death penalty machine has inspired a mission to dismantle it.

Gayle Ray, who served as commissioner of the Tennessee Department of Correction from 2009 to 2011 and deputy commissioner before that, went on to join the board of Tennesseans for Alternatives to the Death Penalty.

“It’s asking an awful lot of people to carry out the death penalty law,” says Ray in a short film the organization released in 2015. “I think it just takes a psychological and physical toll for those who are involved in it.”

Last year, Ray was one of 23 former corrections officials from 16 different states who signed a letter urging Arkansas Gov. Asa Hutchinson to reconsider a plan to execute eight men in 11 days. The state ultimately carried out four of those eight scheduled executions. Frank Thompson, who oversaw two executions as the superintendent of the Oregon State Penitentiary, also signed the letter. He told The Guardian, “There is absolutely no way to conduct a well-run execution without causing at least one person to lose a little bit of their humanity, or to start at least one person on the cumulative path to post-traumatic stress.”

The mere scheduling of an execution changes the atmosphere in Riverbend’s Unit 2. Ndume Olatushani, a Tennessee man who was wrongly convicted of murder and served 27 years in prison — 19 of them on death row — before he was freed in 2012, recalls the appearance of execution dates on the calendar as a shock to the system.

“When this stuff was pending, when it happened, just leading all up to it, it was certainly a reminder to all of us there that if we stayed there long enough, there would come a day when we would be those people being walked to the death chamber,” Olatushani tells the Scene.

But even if Tennessee’s scheduled executions never come to pass, the process of preparing for them is grim. Perhaps paradoxically, getting within hours or even minutes of an execution only to have it called off can be a unique trauma as well. Multiple men on Tennessee’s death row have been moved to death watch, preparing for their execution, more than once.

“It’s an emotionally draining experience to have to prepare for it,” says one former high-ranking Tennessee corrections official who has worked closely with executions and near-executions in several different capacities. The official agreed to speak about their former job on the condition of anonymity. “It’s an emotionally draining experience to go through the process. And it is even more so if you get up within an hour of an execution and that execution is postponed. It’s just something that you can’t even fathom what the human condition is having to go through during that time.”

The former corrections official says that for the execution team — some of whom will have spent years alongside the man set to be executed — “it drains them to a level that you cannot even consider.”

TDOC spokesperson Neysa Taylor tells the Scene that the department “offers counseling for any staffer that needs it.” But two people who spent time working on death row say that in their experience, few if any staffers took advantage of the counseling.

Now as execution dates loom, Taylor says the execution team’s training sessions continue to take place on a monthly basis, a regular ritual of simulated killing. The most recent one, she says, was March 21.

The simulation, according to the state’s Lethal Injection Execution Manual: “includes all steps of the execution process with the following exceptions: A. Volunteers play the roles of the condemned inmate and physician; B. Saline solution is substituted for the lethal chemicals; C. A body is not placed in the body bag.”

Originally published by the Nashville Scene on March 29th, 2018