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  • Writer's pictureOrina Ontiri

The 21st century death chamber: $100,000 for a civilised execution

A tour of Oklahoma’s state-of-the-art killing room unveils how the state spent thousands on restraints, an electric bed and medical equipment, but also how a theatre of transparency hides actual practices

How much does it cost to revamp a death chamber in a prison that hosted a notorious botched execution into a state-of-the-art, 21st century, humane and civilised killing machine? $106,042.60 – or so says the state of Oklahoma.

This week Oklahoma opened the doors of its maximum-security state penitentiary in McAlester to show off its spanking-new redesigned execution suite. It was a display of conspicuous transparency put on for the benefit of the media, which was paradoxical in the circumstances, as one of the main changes made under the renovation is to slash the number of media witnesses at all future executions by more than half.

As part of the media tour, the prison authorities handed reporters an itemised balance sheet that listed all the expenses that had gone into the upgrade. The 144 entries ranged from the mundane – $516.92 spent on new carpeting, $358.42 for paint stripper, $55.24 on “nuts and bolts” – to the more resonant.

Almost $2,000 were spent on restraints – four brown leather straps, one for each of the offender’s hands and one for each ankle. There was an order for 34 needles, as well as a set of new syringes for administering the lethal drugs.

And then there was the listing for a “surgical table”, commonly known as a gurney, costing a substantial $12,500. In case Oklahoma taxpayers are tempted to complain about such lavish expense, it should be pointed out that the new gurney is likely to see plenty of use: the last one was purchased by the state in the 1950s and was the centrepiece of at least 111 judicial killings.

Scott Crow, the department of corrections administrator of field operations who conducted the tour, waxed lyrical about the capabilities of the new death bed. “This is an electric bed which has the ability to raise or lower to accommodate the needs not only of witnesses in the viewing areas but any needs as far as the offender is concerned,” he said.

He pressed a set of buttons beneath the gurney so that the assembled media representatives could see it rise and fall, rise and fall, with the cheerful smoothness of a carousel horse.

The “major renovations” that Crow described on the tour were ordered by the director of Oklahoma’s department of corrections, Robert Patton, in the wake of the botched execution of Clayton Lockett in April. It took 43 minutes for the prisoner to die from an experimental concoction of drugs, during which he was observed to heave and groan on the gurney. In a rare presidential intervention in the debate over capital punishment, the White House said the execution “fell short of humane standards”.

In Oklahoma’s own internal investigation into the Lockett debacle, the state noted a number of inadequacies, including poor training of execution staff and lack of supplies such as proper sized needles. Soon after the execution, Patton said that Lockett had died of a “massive heart attack” – but a more likely explanation, indicated in autopsies, was that officials had bungled the placing of the IV in Lockett’s veins.

In the fallout from the affair, the state produced a new execution protocol, under which the the death chamber was renovated. One of the key changes is to cut the number of media witnesses to all future executions from 12 to five.

Hence the paradox. During this week’s media tour, reporters heard that the new witness area had its quota of seating reduced form 25 to 19, without any mention that the missing seats used to be available to reporters.

Department of Corrections official Scott Crow talks behind the newly renovated death chamber at the Oklahoma State Penitentiary during a media tour of the facility in McAlester. Photograph: Sue Ogrocki/AP

State officials refused to discuss any aspect of the new execution protocols other than bare construction issues, on grounds that the matter was “being litigated”. When, for instance, the Guardian pointed to an entry among the renovation expenses listed as “electrode snap FM Wetgel 50s” and asked for a plain English translation, Crow replied: “That’s part of the protocol. I’m not at liberty to discuss that.”

The Guardian, together with the Oklahoma Observer and the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) are among the litigants to which the officials were referring. They have asked the courts to stop the department of corrections from drawing a curtain over the viewing window, preventing reporters seeing the full proceedings, as happened 16 minutes into Lockett’s execution. This week the ACLU and the two news organizationsalso called for a preliminary injunction to prevent Oklahoma from reducing the number of media witnesses to five.

Some aspects of the renovation could be deemed to be a step forward, in the sense that they will reduce the likelihood of further botches. In the new operations room that sits alongside the death chamber, there will now be equipment to monitor the offender’s heart, blood pressure and blood oxygen levels, as well as an ultra-sound that will assist in finding a vein in which to place the IV.

Cameras fixed to the ceiling above the gurney will allow the three executioners, sitting on the other side of the wall, to zoom in on the offender’s face. The old system of indicating difficulties with the lethal injection process that used to rely on pushing coloured sticks through the wall – red spelling danger – has been scrapped and replaced by a digital intercom that will connect the executioners to the one person who will be allowed inside the death chamber along with the offender.

Reporters asked who that person would be – would it be a physician or paramedic, or state official? “I am not at liberty to say that, it’s under litigation,” Crow replied.

Whether the $106,042.60-worth of “improvements” will be appreciated by the state’s current death row population of 49 is perhaps a moot point. Dale Baich, the lawyer who represented Clayton Lockett, said he was withholding judgment until he’d seen the changes himself – a visit to the new facilities for attorneys working with condemned prisoners is said to be in the offing.

It won’t be too long before Oklahoma’s death chamber 2.0 is put through its paces. Child killer Charles Warner has been given the dubious privilege of being the first to test it out. His execution is scheduled for 13 November.-Guardian

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