State sanctioned executions in the age of COVID-19

When the federal government executed Corey Johnson at the United States Penitentiary in Terre Haute, Indiana, on the 14th of January, 2021, he was COVID-19 positive. He was executed while suffering from a highly contagious respiratory illness that is killing over 4,000 Americans each day. Despite his positive diagnosis for COVID-19 and his risk for infecting those around him with this respiratory illness, Corey Johnson’s execution was not postponed. Who were the medical professionals treating Corey Johnson and overseeing the workers’ health at the U.S. Federal Penitentiary in Terre Haute, Indiana? What is the line of command where an order of execution of an individual supersedes medical decision-making and CDC guidelines? The choice made to execute Corey Johnson while he had an active COVID-19 infection demands that we look at who decided to expose prison personnel to COVID-19 and why CDC guidelines were violated along with an absence of medical decision-making.

Corey Johnson’s legal team argued that due to his infection with COVID-19, injecting him with a lethal dose of pentobarbital, the barbiturate currently used in lethal injections, would be extremely painful, a “cruel and unusual” punishment. They argued that he would endure “lung burning” due to the fluid in his lungs from his COVID-19 infection. Who were the medical personnel present to corroborate this medical diagnosis and present it to the legal authorities responsible for carrying out this sentence? Who were the medical physicians responsible for evaluating the patient, the setting, and making recommendations concerning the health and safety of all involved in this federal execution? Who were the public health officers, those physicians charged with safeguarding and investigating the public’s health at this long-term care facility?

Reports have emerged that prison personnel were not wearing masks. Many others present would have been close contacts. The CDC defines close contacts as 15 cumulative minutes with a person infected with COVID-19. After a lethal injection of pentobarbital, it took Corey Johnson’s body 20 minutes to stop trying to live. Everyone present for his execution, those were strapped him down and were within 6 feet of him are close contacts and now need to quarantine and be tested for COVID-19. Why were prison workers not wearing masks around an individual who was COVID-19 positive? Who was the person responsible in that facility for enforcing COVID-19 protocols, and why were they absent from this execution? Furthermore, why were two individuals on death row, Corey Johnson and Dustin Higgs, COVID-19 positive in the first place? Who is leading the U.S. Federal Penitentiary’s COVID-19 response during this pandemic? What have local authorities done, if anything, to halt the spread of COVID-19 in this high-risk and vulnerable setting?

While his legal team and advocates sought to postpone Corey Johnson’s execution until after his infectious period was over, their pleas were denied. Who was responsible for issuing orders that contradict the CDC’s guidelines around infection, exposure, and the risks COVID-19 poses to those who work and those who live in prisons? My hope is that more medical oversight occurs in federal prisons. The fact that no physician was consulted, no public health official was consulted, and the blatant disregard for public health and medical consequences of COVID-19 spread within federal penitentiaries and their surrounding communities deserves our attention. While our government encourages us all to wear masks, socially distance, and wash hands, the fact that this is NOT occurring in our prisons, the site of our justice system, is appalling. We should all be moved to work toward better public health and medical oversight of long-term care facilities like prisons. May no one else at the U.S. Federal Penitentiary in Terre Haute, Indiana, their families, their surrounding community, catch COVID-19 or die from this respiratory illness. May we all follow CDC guidelines to protect ourselves and our loved ones.

Kasey Johnson is a medical student.

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