A former Pennsylvania death-row prison superintendent says working on death row makes corrections personnel feel “less human” and “can be profoundly damaging” psychologically. Cynthia Link (pictured) served as the Superintendent of Pennsylvania’s State Correctional Institution at Graterford from 2015 to 2018, during a period in which the prison housed more than 20 of the Commonwealth’s death row prisoners. In a July 16, 2019 op-ed for Penn Live, Link describes the psychological toll that corrections officers face when working on death row. She explains the challenging nature of working with condemned prisoners even in a state such as Pennsylvania, which has not carried out an execution in 20 years.

“Few outside of my profession realize how difficult capital punishment is for the staff; even when executions are not being carried out, housing death row prisoners can be profoundly damaging,” she writes. Enforcing the “inhumane” conditions on death row causes extreme stress and prevents corrections officers from doing the jobs they were trained to do. “Politics, policy and post order often kept us from providing professionally prudent care,” Link says.

“Death row was designed to provide temporary housing prior to an execution,” Link says, “but today’s death-sentenced prisoners live inhumanely for many years or decades while staff struggle to help them survive their ‘temporary’ stay.” In an effort to protect corrections officers, Pennsylvania limits them to two year “tours of duty” working on death row and monitors them for mental health problems. Despite those efforts, the stress of the assignment has serious effects on officers. Link explains: “Some officers indulge in alcohol, drugs or other dangerous behaviors to find relief. Some isolate and leave their families. Some have even taken their own lives when it becomes too overwhelming. The stress on death row staff is seldom-discussed but undeniably real. Each tour of duty on death row makes you feel less human.”

At its peak, more than 250 prisoners were incarcerated in Pennsylvania’s three death-row facilities. Most eventually had their convictions or death sentences overturned in the courts after spending years in solitary confinement, where they had no contact visits with their lawyers and family members, yet were subject to strip searches each time they left their cells.

The prisoners were eventually transferred from the old Graterford Prison (pictured, below) to a new modern supermax facility less than a mile away. Link draws a parallel between the outdated, crumbling building in which death-sentenced prisoners had been held, and the death penalty itself as a policy “relic.” “Prisons eventually outlive their usefulness and turn into relics of an unfamiliar past. Maybe the death penalty is a relic that can also be replaced. I know that doing so would remove a huge burden from the lives of corrections staff.” She urges Pennsylvania’s government to consider prison workers as they make decisions about capital punishment. “As government officials in Harrisburg contemplate what to do about the death penalty, I urge them to factor in the human toll it takes on Pennsylvania’s corrections profession. Death sentences punish them, too.”

Numerous corrections officers have spoken about the difficulty of working on death row and carrying out executions. In 2017, a group of correctional officials from around the U.S. warned Arkansas about the extreme impact of the state’s proposal to execute eight people in 11 days. Former Georgia warden Allen Ault has been an outspoken critic of capital punishment, sharing stories of his own experiences conducting executions. Frank Thompson, who held high-ranking positions in prisons in Oregon and Arkansas, wrote, “Many of us who have taken part in this process [of executions] live with nightmares, especially those of us who have participated in executions that did not go smoothly. Correctional officers who carry out execution can suffer from post-traumatic stress, drug and alcohol addiction, and depression.” Jerry Givens, who carried out 62 executions in Virginia, now opposes the death penalty, and has spoken about his concerns about executing innocent people.