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Image: The Huntsville, Texas, execution chamber
The gurney in the death chamber from Huntsville, Texas on May 27, 2008.Pat Sullivan / AP file

Pandemic interferes with Trump admin's execution plans

The Trump administration is eager to execute more prisoners, but those efforts have been made more difficult by the pandemic Trump has failed to address.


With only 43 days remaining in his presidency, Donald Trump and his team are still pursuing a variety of priorities, including "ratcheting up the pace of federal executions," as the Associated Press reported yesterday. The effort is not, however, without some challenges.

For 17 years, the federal government curtailed killing inmates in federal prisons, but on their way out the door, Trump administration officials aren't just ending the hiatus; they're eager to execute prisoners at a pace unseen in the United States since 1896.

The politics of this are certainly notable: Americans just elected a new president who opposes the death penalty, so the outgoing administration appears to be scrambling to kill as many inmates as it can before Joe Biden's inauguration. There's also, obviously, moral questions surrounding Team Trump's eagerness to execute so many people -- especially given the racial disparities of those the Republican administration wants to put to death.

But I'm also struck by some of the practical considerations.

We recently learned, for example, that the Justice Department, facing dwindling supplies of execution drugs, approved new guidelines that would open the door to firing squads and electrocutions for federal executions.

The Associated Press report added yesterday:

The concern about moving forward with executions in the middle of a pandemic — as the Bureau of Prisons struggles with an exploding number of virus cases at prisons across the country — heightened further on Monday when the Justice Department disclosed that some members of the execution team had tested positive for the virus. The disclosure was made in a court filing by lawyers for two inmates at the prison complex, saying the Justice Department informed them that some of the members of the team — among the nearly 100 people are typically brought in to assist in various tasks during each execution — had tested positive for coronavirus after the last execution.

This isn't necessarily surprising, since some of the most severe COVID-19 outbreaks have been seen in prisons. As the New York Times noted, "In American jails and prisons, more than 252,000 people have been infected and at least 1,450 inmates and correctional officers have died. During interviews with dozens of inmates across the country, many said they were frightened and frustrated by what prison officials have acknowledged has been an uneven response to the virus."

It's hard not to marvel at the tragedy of the intersecting stories: the Trump administration is eager to put more people to death in federal prisons, but those efforts have been made more difficult by the pandemic Trump has failed to address, which has led to more deaths.