Outgoing Trump administration paves way for additional methods of executing prisoners sentenced to death.
A group of former senior corrections officers sent acting Attorney General Jeffery Rosen a letter on Monday asking the three federal executions scheduled this week be postponed due to COVID-19 concerns.
The executions, set to be carried out at a federal prison complex in Terre Haute, Indiana, pose “an unnecessary threat” to the safety of corrections officers, administrators and prisoners, the letter (PDF), signed by four former officials, says.
President Donald Trump resumed federal executions in 2020 after a 17-year hiatus. Ten prisoners in federal custody were put to death last year.
The executions are scheduled to continue into 2021, before President-elect Joe Biden takes office on January 20, prompting widespread criticism.
Biden has said he is against capital punishment.
The first execution in January is scheduled for January 12 and will see Lisa Montgomery, the only woman on federal death row, face capital punishment – the first woman to do so since 1967.
Lawyers have filed challenges to Montgomery’s execution on federal regulatory measures regarding scheduling her death while a stay of execution was in effect and state laws that say executions must be carried out under Missouri law, since her federal trial took place there.
That challenge claims the federal government failed to provide the notice required under Missouri law when it set Montgomery’s execution date.
The American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU), a nonprofit which works to secure the rights of US citizens, released the letter, calling the scheduled executions, “superspreader events”.
“The data shows that the federal executions these past six months led to preventable spikes in COVID-19 for people incarcerated at Terre Haute prison, prison staff, and in the surrounding community”, Cassandra Stubbs, director of the ACLU’s Capital Punishment Project, said in a news release.
The two other inmates scheduled for execution are Corey Johnson, 52, whose death date is January 14, and Dustin Higgs, 48, who will face lethal injection the following day.
Both men contracted COVID-19, which has devastated prisons and jails across the US. Lawyers for the two filed challenges to their executions, saying their damaged lungs would increase their suffering.
The US Constitution bars “cruel and unusual punishment” under the Eighth Amendment.
Concerns remain about the spread of COVID-19 in prisons, which can then spread from corrections staff to the outside community, as the US breaks records for new cases and deaths.
The US has more than 22,500,000 confirmed cases and 375,000 deaths, according to the Johns Hopkins University tally.
The US began administering COVID-19 vaccines in December, but the roll-out has come under fire for its slow speed.
As of Monday morning, nearly nine million in the US had received their first shot, or 2.7 percent of the population, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
Experts say as much as 85 percent of the population will have to be inoculated to achieve “herd immunity” and vanquish the outbreak.
“Community COVID-19 levels are already exceptionally high in Indiana, with several counties in crisis”, the letter said.
“At the same time, vaccinations have begun at FCC Terre Haute and other corrections agencies in Indiana. A short postponement could literally save hundreds of lives. We ask that you prioritize the health and safety of correction staff and postpone these executions until staff have all been offered vaccines.”