Wednesday, May 16, 2007

Building the Killing State: California’s New Execution Chamber Unveiled

How does the state appear to us today? We can recall our favorite art deco post-offices, some built by the WPA, or the majestic fronts of high schools, city halls, county court houses and state capitals. One way the state does not usually appear to us, at least since the 19th century, is as ceremonial site of human executions. The relative disappearance of execution from public view, is one of the laws of penal evolution that our recent decades have not quite over turned (even as the death penalty itself survives). All the more unusual then that the public is given a glimpse into the way a contemporary state designs an execution chamber. The current one at San Quentin prison was a gas chamber, designed to asphyxiate condemned prisoners before a small audience of state officials and official witnesses. When California switched to lethal injection as an option in 1993, and then as the exclusive method (by court ruling) in 1995, the apparatus was set up inside the chamber, providing little room for prison staff to operate the machinery of death. Due to a successful challenge to execution of Michael Morales in 2006, California's death penalty has been stalled until the state can satisfy a federal judge that its procedures assure Morales and other prisoners a painless death. In an effort to satisfy that court, the state has revealed not only its new protocol but its design for a new execution chamber, currently priced at three quarters of a million dollar (a small part of an overall billion dollar remodel of death row to accommodate a thousand or more inmates). The result is a rare look into how the contemporary state presents itself in executions and the values that seem to govern that ritual. (Read Henry Weinstein's reporting in the LA Times)

The lay out of the new execution suite reflects the curious mixture of empathy and cruelty that lies at the heart of the modern death penalty. A person’s life is to be taken from them in full consciousness that they are dying as a punishment, but the process of taking it must conform to all the social and religious values embodied in our modern administrative state from designated space for spiritual advisors, to toilets designed to accommodate disabled persons.

The capacious injection chamber is open to viewing on three sides representing and dividing three distinct classes of authorized witnesses, family members of the victim, the media, and family members of the executed prisoner. State officials would presumably watch from the central media area. This design seems aimed at preventing any possibility of untoward words or expressions between the families of the murder victim and the execution victim.

The design also reflects the peculiar position the state is putting its own employees through in conducting executions by exposing them to a substantial risk of post traumatic disorders. Staff who must cope with the emotionally trying work of strapping a person down and injecting them with lethal poison have a break room and logistics area designed to permit them maximum distance and comfort in the midst of the execution machinery itself.

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