Performing executions, whether authentic or simulated, causes long-term side effects for workers both in and outside of prisons, according to NPR.
The organization’s investigative team conducted 26 interviews of a group that included executioners, lawyers, an engineer, a doctor and a nurse.
The interviewees disclosed long-term side effects they associated with their participation in the executions, including hair loss, insomnia, irritability, anxiety and dissociation.
Some expressed concerns about a lack of support in dealing with the serious mental and physical repercussions arising from participation in a combined 200 executions across 17 states.
“People think that it would be so easy to go up and execute someone who had committed such heinous acts, but the truth is that killing a human being is hard. It should be hard,” said Jeanne Woodford, a former warden at San Quentin State Prison who oversaw four executions.
Woodford’s job was to speak with the prisoner scheduled to die and a family member for instructions on what to do with the body afterward. She would later speak with the family of the victim.
Woodford said that the memories of what she had done kept her distant in her personal life, causing persistent insomnia.
In 2021, Indiana executed prisoner Corey Johnson by lethal injection, but seven minutes after administration of the injection, Johnson spoke, “I feel my mouth and hands are on fire.”
Bill Breeden, a minister who prayed with the prisoner, felt the effects of that moment for months following the execution. He became claustrophobic at times and cried randomly during conversations. He was also haunted by nightmares.
Another botched execution occurred at a Florida prison’s electric chair in 1997, when condemned inmate Pedro Medina’s head unexpectedly caught fire during his execution.
“Once the smoke and the fire came out of the helmet, of course, there was no turning back. It was awful,” said Ron McAndrew, the prison’s warden.
McAndrew said that witnessing that execution, and seven others, left him with problems in his fingers and heels. He said he started drinking heavily on a regular basis. Two decades later, McAndrew said he still feels responsible for the nightmarish event.
Of the 26 workers interviewed, 10 had never witnessed an execution or even worked inside a prison. Their experiences included close involvement in a capital punishment court case.
“No one who NPR spoke with whose work required them to witness executions in Virginia, Nevada, Florida, California, Ohio, South Carolina, Arizona, Nebraska, Texas, Alabama, Oregon, South Dakota or Indiana expresses support for the death penalty afterwards,” the story said.
The change of their viewpoint did not derive from sympathy for the prisoner, but a realization of how hard the process had been on them because of their participation.
Many states have basic Employee Assistance Programs that guarantee a limited number of free counseling sessions for state workers involved in executions. The worker must pay for additional support.
Some former execution workers are aware of assistance available to them, but said that the assistance is optional, and that they avoided the services because they did not want to seem weak to other staff members.
Missouri, Texas and Arizona have trained teams of counselors to work with staff during crises like riots and hostage situations, but not for executions.
Dr. Joseph Currier studies military trauma at the University of South Alabama. Currier says that taking a human life is the highest predictor of mental health problems.
Veterans have lifelong health care through the Department of Veterans Affairs. Execution workers have no comparable support system.