The federal government had conducted only three executions in the past thirty-two years since the federal death penalty was restored in 1988, with the most recent being in 2003 when the federal government executed three people in five days. A fourth federal execution is scheduled for August 28th.
The federal executions were carried out as U.S. prisons have proven to be coronavirus hot spots due to the inability to prevent the spread of a highly contagious virus within jails, prisons and youth correctional facilities – endangering incarcerated people, correctional staff and surrounding communities. Concern about COVID-19 in correctional facilities has prompted efforts around the country to reduce the number of incarcerated people, but too few people have been released to stop the spread within correctional facilities.
There is currently a ban on federal prison visitations due to COVID-19, meaning that over 161,600 families have been unable to visit a loved one for months; but, at the same time, the Federal Bureau of Prisons (BOP) allowed people into the prison to observe the executions. From families of the victims and the person being executed, to clergy and others, holding three executions in one week required many people to travel to Indiana, risking further contamination and spread of COVID-19. One victim’s family requested a delay in the execution to allow them to safely travel to Indiana but DOJ disregarded the request, causing a federal appeals court to question the federal government’s claim that they were acting in the interest of victims.
According to the BOP, as of July 14th 8,896 people incarcerated in federal prisons, and 887 BOP staff, have a confirmed positive test result for COVID-19 nationwide, and tragically 99 incarcerated people, and 1 BOP staff member, have died from COVID-19. At least one person incarcerated at the Terre Haute federal prison in Indiana has died from COVID-19, the same facility where the federal executions were carried out. Over the course of the week in which the three federal executions took place, there was a 75.9 percent (1,257 cases) increase in positive COVID cases, and one death, in federal prisons. According to the CDC there has been a 12.5 percent increase of positive cases (an additional 462,140 cases), including 1,099 deaths due to COVID-19 across the country generally.
The death penalty is a cruel, inhuman and degrading punishment, is applied disproportionately to people of color, and fails to provide effective deterrence to criminal behavior. It is a human rights abuse and waste of taxpayer dollars in the best of times. In the middle of a pandemic and unrest about institutional racism in the justice system, it is unconscionable that the federal government resumed executions for the first time in 17 years. JPI stands firmly with those who have been harmed by crime, and those who have caused harm, most of whom are within the same communities, and supports the application of effective, non-lethal, restorative and equitable responses to crime and violence.
The Justice Policy Institute, based in Washington, DC, is dedicated to ending the incarceration generation by reducing reliance on the justice system and using incarceration only as a last resort.