A former high-ranking federal corrections official has warned that the federal government’s plan to execute five prisoners over a five-week period in December and January risks seriously traumatizing correctional workers. Allen Ault (pictured) is a former chief of the Justice Department’s National Institute of Corrections who also served as corrections commissioner in Georgia, Mississippi, and Colorado, and as chairman of the Florida Department of Corrections. In a July 31, 2019 op-ed in The Washington Post, Ault says, “I know from my own firsthand experiences, supervising executions as a state director of corrections, that the damage executions inflict on correctional staff is deep and far-ranging.”

Ault’s op-ed describes the mental and emotional toll that executions take on corrections officials, including those who do not directly participate in the execution. Execution team members, he says, have reported “nightmares, insomnia and addiction” and have developed post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) as a result of taking part in executions.

The “compressed schedule” proposed by the federal government presents additional challenges. Three executions are scheduled in a five-day span in December 2019, with two more in January 2020 just two days apart. According to Ault, this schedule “causes an extended disruption to normal prison operations and precludes any attempt to return to normalcy following an execution. It also prevents any meaningful review by execution team members and other officials to address problems or concerns in the execution process. That increases the risk that something could go horribly wrong in the next execution. And if a ‘routine’ execution is traumatizing for all involved, a botched one is devastating.”

“Psychologists have described the impact of executions on correctional staff as similar to that suffered by battlefield veterans,” Ault writes. “But in my military experience, there was one major difference: The enemy was an anonymous, armed combatant who was threatening my life. In an execution, the condemned prisoner is a known human being who is totally defenseless when brought into the death chamber. Staff members know that he has been secured safely for many years before his execution and poses no threat to them personally.” Other corrections officers are also affected, Ault says. “The trauma extends through the many correctional staff who interact every day with death row prisoners, often forming meaningful bonds over the course of many years and, in many cases, witnessing their changed mind-sets and profound remorse.” He reports that executions can cause “depression, anxiety and other mental and physical impacts” in other members of the prison community.

Twenty-three corrections officials, including Ault, warned Arkansas about these dangers when the state scheduled eight executions in an eleven-day period in 2017. Ault argues that “[t]here’s no good reason for the Trump administration to move forward with executions. There hasn’t been a federal execution since 2003, and the prisoners under federal death sentence have been safely managed by the Bureau of Prisons in high-security federal prisons.”


Allen Ault, The hid­den vic­tims of the death penal­ty: Correctional staff, The Washington Post, July 312019.