When Yusuf Ahmed Nur, a professor at the University of Indiana, was asked to administer last rites to federal death row inmate Orlando Hall last month, he knew that there was a chance he would contract the coronavirus.
Prisons are known hot spots for the virus as they’re often crowded, have poor ventilation, and are filled with aging, medically vulnerable individuals. At the Federal Correctional Complex in Terre Haute, Indiana, where federal executions are carried out, at least 188 people have been diagnosed with COVID-19 and three have died. And yet these executions — which bring together dozens of correctional staff and witnesses, many of whom have traveled from out of state — are still being carried out, despite the danger of spreading the virus.
“I knew it was going to be a big risk,” Nur told HuffPost. “But I felt like it was worth the sacrifice.”
On Nov. 19, Nur spent more than five hours at the prison complex awaiting Hall’s execution, housed in a small, windowless room with other witnesses. When it was time for Hall to be put to death, Nur entered the chamber to administer the last rites, reciting a prayer from the Quran. He stood close to the two executioners, both of whom were unmasked. Less than a week later, Nur tested positive for the coronavirus. He believes that he contracted the virus at the prison, as he was strictly isolating from others at the time.
The decision by the U.S. government to move full steam ahead with federal executions in the face of a raging pandemic has attracted scant attention, despite the fact that it is dramatically out of step with state prison practices and opposed by a growing number of law enforcement officials and advocates for incarcerated individuals.
Since coronavirus lockdowns began in mid-March, executions by state governments have essentially come to a halt because of the health risks involved. Only two people on state death rows have been executed, Walter Barton in Missouri on May 19 and Billy Wardlow in Texas on July 8.
In contrast, the federal government has executed eight people, with five more people scheduled to die before President Donald Trump leaves office. Brandon Bernard is set to be executed on Dec. 10, Alfred Bourgeois on Dec. 11, Lisa Montgomery on Jan. 12, Cory Johnson on Jan. 14 and Dustin Higgs on Jan. 15.
Since it reinstated capital punishment at the federal level this summer, the Trump administration has killed more death row prisoners than the U.S. government has done in the last five decades combined.
President-elect Joe Biden has pledged to end the practice.
Critics argue that continuing to carry out federal executions endangers the health of inmates, employees and visitors to FCC Terre Haute, as well those who live in the surrounding community. At the same time, the pandemic is also severely compromising the ability of death row prisoners to prepare comprehensive clemency petitions before their execution dates.
“Right now, nobody but the federal government is carrying out executions,” said Robert Dunham, executive director of the Death Penalty Information Center. “Most states have recognized that there is no urgent penological need to carry out an execution during the worst pandemic in a century, when, if the execution is lawful, it can be carried out safely once the pandemic is under control.”
FCC Terre Haute is located in Vigo County, where coronavirus cases are spiking. On Nov. 14, Gov. Eric Holcomb (R) issued an executive order to restrict public gatherings after hospitalizations in the state hit an all-time high.
A lawsuit filed last week on behalf of inmates at FCC Terre Haute asks the U.S. government to delay the scheduled executions until the threat of the COVID-19 pandemic has passed. It argues that the executions are putting the incarcerated population at significant risk of serious illness or even death without a good reason.
As the complaint details, each execution is expected to draw around 200 people who will intermingle at or near the prison, eat at local restaurants, and sleep at local hotels. Nearly a hundred Bureau of Prisons staff are typically brought to Terre Haute to assist with the execution from other prisons, which may or may not be experiencing coronavirus outbreaks. Media representatives and demonstrators are also likely to gather for each event.
“The pandemic poses more of a risk with federal executions than state executions, because you are bringing in people from across the country,” Dunham said. “You have more of an opportunity to infect people.”
Cassandra Stubbs, director of the ACLU’s Capital Punishment Project, which has also been litigating issues related to COVID and capital punishment, called the executions obvious superspreader events.
“People are getting sick and dying because of them,” she said in a statement. “Lawyers, spiritual advisors, reporters, and people from around the country will put their lives at risk to attend these federal executions. But the people who live in Vigo County and the people incarcerated at Terre Haute prison have no say in the risk they’ll be exposed to.”
According to an affidavit by Joe Goldenson, a doctor with 33 years of experience in correctional settings, the numbers of COVID-19 infections at FCC Terre Haute increased after executions resumed this summer. He warned that the Bureau of Prisons had not adopted appropriate measures to stem the spread of the coronavirus, noting that the prison complex was still using an out-of-date visitor screening form first issued in March.
“It is my professional opinion that inmates at FCC Terre Haute are at a heightened risk of contracting COVID-19 as a result of the nature of conducting executions at the facility,” he wrote. “The same is true of staff members at FCC Terre Haute and their families and members of the broader Terre Haute community, all of which groups would likely have a higher risk of contracting COVID-19 than they would if the executions were postponed, with the attendant risk of serious illness and death for some number of the members of those groups.”
Yusuf Ahmed Nur, who administered last rites for Orlando Hall, is not the only person to have contracted coronavirus while attending to the needs of a death row inmate. The two lead attorneys for Lisa Montgomery, the only woman on federal death row, both became sick with coronavirus after visiting with her at a prison in Texas.
Montgomery, who is mentally ill, was sentenced to death for murdering a pregnant woman in 2004 and kidnapping her baby. She is a victim of severe childhood abuse, including incest and sex trafficking, according to her lawyers and family members.
Her execution was initially scheduled for Dec. 8 but has been postponed until Jan. 12 to give her attorneys more time to prepare her clemency application. She is currently incarcerated in a women’s medical prison in Texas, but is expected to be transferred to FCC Terre Haute, an all-male prison, in the coming weeks.
Many in the criminal justice community are also speaking out about the public health implications of federal executions and pleading for a reprieve.
On Thursday, a bipartisan group of nearly 100 criminal justice leaders issued a statement calling for an immediate halt to federal executions and urging Trump to commute the sentences of the five people scheduled to be executed before Biden’s inauguration. Carrying out executions during a pandemic and in the waning days of Trump’s presidency will undermine trust in the criminal justice system, they warned.
“At a time when the country is struggling through a deadly pandemic, spending scarce resources to carry out federal executions and forcing defense lawyers to risk their lives to defend clients on death row is simply unthinkable,” the letter states.
For Nur, who contracted a mild case of COVID-19 after attending Hall’s execution, the illness was nothing compared to the trauma he experienced watching a man be killed by the state right in front of him.
“It just hits you, it hits you in the face and it’s terrible,” he said.
Still, he is planning on returning to FCC Terre Haute to serve as spiritual counsel for Dustin Higgs, another death row inmate, who is scheduled to be executed on Jan. 15, five days before Biden’s inauguration.
“I don’t want to, but I would not say no,” Nur said. “If it will make any difference in his last minutes on Earth, I am going to do it.”
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