The Enforcers of the Death Penalty

How does capital punishment affect the prison guards and wardens tasked with carrying it out?


It was the late 70s, and Kathleen Dennehy was working at Massachusetts Correctional Institution at Concord, the oldest running men's prison in the state. Opened in 1878, it has a vault filled with corrections records dating back to the turn of the century, both from the now-demolished state prison that preceded it and from MCI-Concord's prison cemetery. The weathered papers include death certificates, sentencing documents, and other records, including those of Sacco and Vanzetti, the famous 20s anarchists ostensibly sentenced to death for first-degree murder, but whose larger crime was being Italian.

But one particular document—from the early 1900s, she estimates—caught her eye. "The wording was so unusual," says Dennehy, who now works for the National Council on Crime & Delinquency. "It was for a prisoner who had died in custody at the old state prison, and next to 'cause of death', it read 'judicial homicide.'"

It's a telling turn of phrase. Sometime during the 20th century—historical sources disagree as to the exact year—the term "capital punishment" entered American legal parlance, and with it a sanitized rebranding of state-sanctioned killings. Dennehy had never heard the term “judicial homicide” used before encountering it in the vault, nor—during her 30-year career in corrections that followed—did she hear it used again. Taken separately, the words "capital" and "punishment" are both qualifiers for the condemned, but "judicial homicide" points to someone else entirely. It's the guard standing at the door to the death chamber, the strap-down team member holding the prisoner's ankles, and the physician inserting the needle. It's the people who walk into the death chamber and walk back out, and sure, their task is judicial. But just because we call it "punishment" now, does it affect their psyches any less than when we called it "homicide”?

Unlike other professions that involve death, such as the police force or the military, few corrections officers enter the field with the expectation that they'll eventually have to kill somebody.  On the contrary, many view themselves as protectors.

"We are caretakers for a population of people who instantly go out of sight, out of mind for the general public," says Jennie Lancaster, a retired prison warden with the North Carolina Department of Corrections. In 1984, she oversaw the execution of Velma Barfield, the first woman in 35 years to be executed in the United States and the first to die of lethal injection.

"At job interviews we don't ask things like, 'So how do you feel about wheeling away a body?'" Lancaster says. "But maybe we should. It's not a role many of us picture ourselves playing."

And why would they? When it comes to the death penalty, much media attention has been paid to families of the victims and the condemned. Not so with corrections officers. It takes stories of executions gone wrong, such as Clayton Lockett's heart attack after a failed lethal injection in Oklahoma last April, or Joseph R. Wood III's injection of 15 times greater than the standard dosage, to shift the lens. Then, we wonder: What must it have been like to be in that room? To watch a person's body convulse, rather than calmly shut down? What is it like to wait two hours and 600 gasps of air for a man to die?

Following the media circus around Velma Barfield's execution, Lancaster was asked to appear on The Oprah Winfrey Show for a panel on capital punishment in 1988. This was the same year that Congress reinstated the federal death penalty, with then-president Reagan as a vocal supporter (though it should be noted that the Supreme Court put capital punishment back into effect several years earlier in 1976, after a four-year moratorium). On the episode, Lancaster coined the phrase "silent actors" to describe the corrections officers who have to physically mete out executions, and whose names are protected from the press.

"There is a code of silence around execution teams, and it's used to protect people who are involved in them," says Lancaster, who was one of the first wardens to bring public awareness to corrections job stress. Still, she acknowledges that the flip side of protection is isolation, and that execution teams have few people to talk about their experiences with.  "It's not necessarily something you go and bring up in church," she sighs with a North Carolinian drawl.

So how do you cope with that kind of job stress? In the American legal system, we burden a small handful of people with what is arguably the hardest part of corrections: There are only 38 execution chambers in the country, five of which—in New Hampshire, Kansas, Nebraska, California, and New York—are never used. When almost nobody can relate to your job, is it easier to quell your feelings about executions than express them?

A 2005 study published in Law and Human Behavior titled "The Role of Moral Disengagement in the Execution Process" sought to answer that question. Conducted by then-Stanford psychology student Michael Osofsky, social cognitive theory pioneer Albert Bandura, and Stanford prison experimenter/psychologist Philip Zimbardo, the five-year study aimed to pinpoint the psychological strategies officers use to repeatedly perform, and cope with, executions.

"The core thesis is that individuals must morally disengage in order to perform actions and behaviors that run opposite and are counter to individual values and personal moral standards," Osofsky says. "Capital punishment is a real-world example of this type of moral dilemma where everyday people are forced to perform a legal and state-sanctioned action of ending the life of another human being, which poses an inherent moral conflict to human values."

To develop his moral disengagement metric, Osofsky studied eight behaviors: moral justification, the use of euphemistic language, advantageous comparison (for example, "the execution prevented him from killing many more people"), displacement of responsibility, diffusion of responsibility, distortion of consequences (i.e. minimizing the execution process: "lethal injection is humane as the inmate has no pain"), attribution of blame, and dehumanization of the prisoner. During his interviews with execution teams and uninvolved correctional officers, he used the Clinician-Administered PTSD Scale (CAPS-1) Life Events Checklist and the Beck Depression Inventory, two tools psychologists use to measure trauma and depression.

One unsurprising aspect of the research was that nearly all corrections officers, whether involved or uninvolved with the execution process, rated high on the CAPS-1 Life Event Checklist, meaning that they had experienced and witnessed some pretty extreme events. But interestingly, there were almost no incidences of depression and scant evidence of PTSD among the wardens or executioners, even for those who had participated in 20 or more executions. Why?

Perhaps because moral disengagement does a good job of protecting the psyche. In fact, Osofsky made another striking discovery: an inverse relationship between levels of moral disengagement and how close to death each team member was. In other words: Carry out your execution day task in the next room (sitting with the victim's family, for example), and your moral disengagement stays low; touch the condemned while they die, and your moral disengagement soars.  This is, of course, keeping in mind that it's incredibly difficult to quantify these types of psychological effects: Everyone processes death in their own unique way, which is why Osofsky's study makes ample use of storytelling and interviews. A quote from his research, this one from a death-chamber door guard at Louisiana's Angola State Prison, aptly illustrates the moral disengagement/proximity-to-death pattern: “After it is over, you get to thinking about him," the guard said. "You try to block it out, but you can’t—his death is there.”

It's a dimension of capital punishment that is rarely discussed. We frequently debate whether it's moral to make human beings die for their actions. But should we also be asking how moral it is to appoint other human beings to be their killers?

It’s not a question with any neat answers. But no matter what retired corrections officials think about the morality or justness of capital punishment, many seem to have one thing in common: When asked to join executions, they were hesitant to take the job.

"I always ask myself, would I have agreed to participate in executions if I knew then what I do now?" says Steve J. Martin, who began his corrections career on death row at age 23 at Ellis Unit, part of Texas State Penitentiary at Huntsville.  After leaving to earn his law degree, he eventually returned as executive assistant to the director and general counsel of the Texas Department of Corrections. During that time, he was asked to sit inside the death chamber while each execution happened, keeping the phone line open in case the Attorney General called at the last minute with a reprieve.

"I wasn’t conflicted at that point about it, and I agreed without giving it a lot of thought," Martin says. "After each execution, I signed the death warrant too, until the thought occurred to me that I didn't really know much about these men. So I started pulling the file each afternoon before someone was assigned to die and reviewing it, just to get to know them better."

Things changed after the 1985 execution of Doyle Skillern, a co-defendant in a homicide case that gave Martin pause. As a lawyer, he knew that murder co-defendants often avoid the death penalty—but Martin had gotten to know Skillern, too, as part of an experiment in the 80s in which Ellis’ death row inmates were mixed into the unit's general prison population, where they interacted with prison staff as well as fellow inmates. Though the experiment was eventually cut short, it afforded Martin and Skillern some one-on-one conversations—including one in Skillern’s cell on the day of his execution, when he looked Martin and his boss, the Director of the Texas Department of Corrections, in the eye and thanked them before being taken away.

"The whole thing made me step out of my role professionally, and touched me on an emotional level," Martin says. "I began to realize that this is how these things happen, executions. We do these things that personally you would normally never be involved in, because they're sanctioned by the government. And then we start walking through them in a mechanical fashion. We become detached. We lose our humanity."

A few years later, there would be another corrections officer at Huntsville who was equally hesitant to join executions. Like Martin, Jim Willett spent his youth working in corrections, starting at the Huntsville penitentiary as a college student in 1971. As is the case with reliable wardens, Willett was tapped often for promotions, until he was made an offer that he initially turned down: the position of head warden, where he'd be overseeing executions.

"I had some personal feelings about it," Willett says. "But I made the mistake of telling my supervisor that if they couldn't find anyone else, I would do it."

Willett ended up becoming Huntsville's head warden during Texas' three busiest years for executions, 1998-2001, when he oversaw a staggering 89 of them. "I'd tell the inmate to lie down on the gurney, and I'd stand by his right shoulder, with the chaplain at his right foot. And there is some emotion that runs through all of that, through the whole experience," say Willett. "You'd have to be crazy for it not to be. I don't know how anybody could totally disassociate."

Still, one gets the sense Willett would score low on the Beck Depression Inventory, just like the prison workers in Osofsky's study. When asked if those 89 executions affect him at all today, his response is either a stunning testament to the durability of the human spirit or a haunting confirmation of Osofsky's research. Or both.

"To be honest with you," Willett says, "They rarely cross my mind. They rarely cross my mind at all."