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Sick and Shrouded in Secrecy: Alabama’s Contract to Gas Humans to Death

Photograph Source: Michael Barera – CC BY-SA 4.0

For $25,000, Alabama’s Attorney General Steve Marshall has contracted with Tennessee company “FDR Safety,” to assist Alabama in developing a barbaric new protocol – to execute its death row prisoners, whom Alabama treats like human guinea pigs – with nitrogen hypoxia.

Paradoxically, FDR Safety specializes in workplace safety consulting, not manufacturing gas masks or gas chambers to exterminate flesh-and-blood human beings – which condemned men and women are – deserving of humane treatment in any conscious, compassionate, and just legal system, no matter how terrible their crimes.

In vivid contrast to everything that has been revealed about Alabama’s Department of Corrections (ADOC) horrific human rights abuses throughout history, continuing to present times, FDR Safety asserts on its website that its values are centered around the belief that “the safest, healthiest and most productive work environments are created when workers are motivated to ‘want to’ be safe rather that [sic] feeling they ‘have to.’” FDR Safety claims, “Our mission is simple: Assist our clients with smart plans and top-quality training and services to make their workplaces productive, safe, and healthy.”

But FDR Safety is in for a rude awakening if it thinks implementing its company’s mission statement as chief advisor to the ADOC on a new, much-more-complicated-than-it-sounds, contemptible method of state-sponsored killing, is going to be anything close to “simple.” Because, as I observed in 2016, in the context of ADOC’s vile torturing of poor people for a long time, corrections officers who execute in Alabama, and for that matter nationwide – whose government paychecks come with a duty and obligation to kill – are not, when it comes to administering lethal injections, or any other method of killing, educated about bodily processes.

Now admittedly, executions are hardly an exact science, and the always beleaguered, always under federal scrutiny ADOC is decidedly low-level fruit when it comes to entities in this country that routinely and reflexively disrespect basic human rights and justice, including the Eighth Amendment’s prohibition of cruel and unusual punishment. But that’s really my point here, too, just as I’ve made the case elsewhere: We must be honest about the death penalty’s repugnance.

The new method of execution, nitrogen hypoxia, deprives the condemned of oxygen, replacing it with an allegedly precisely regulated purified form of nitrogen. Given the complexity of administering a newly developed method of execution, it seems probable that executions will be botched as previous execution methods have been, causing agony to the dying prisoner. And when that occurs, when our constitutional ideals are trampled upon, it is a certainty correctional officials in Alabama will continue ducking and dodging death penalty accountability at every turn.

In December 2018, I wrote in the Church of England newspaper, the oldest religious newspaper in the world, that the prospective gassing of human beings in Alabama – and depressingly, in other states like Oklahoma and Mississippi (which have approved the procedure) – is, no different than the gassing of Jews like my great-grandmother by Hitler, an abomination.

More recently, last month, under the duress of a court order, Alabama made public for the first time its execution protocols for lethal injection and electrocution; protocols that are, in many macabre facets, assumedly comparable to the protocol the ADOC is now secretively collaborating to develop with FDR Safety for nitrogen hypoxia. The heavily redacted document, which obscures and outright hides evidence that could be used to show how the state tortures its citizens to death, mandates, in the week prior to any execution, that it is imperative the Media Center be “checked for cleanliness,” that the “grounds are groomed,” and that the “telephone lines are operational.”

But with its nitrogen hypoxia killing-operation underway, and already 51 death row prisoners slated to be dispatched with this savagery, masking the depravity of the death penalty – and its racist roots in this country – with nicely tended shrubs, even endless buckets of ammonia, won’t work. And so, with working phone lines and an ounce of moral courage, what the ADOC really must do is: Be human. Call this whole nitrogen hypoxia experiment off. Treat other humans under your charge humanely. And for God’s sake, stop tinkering around with the machinery of death.

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Stephen Cooper is a former D.C. public defender who worked as an assistant federal public defender in Alabama between 2012 and 2015. He has contributed to numerous magazines and newspapers in the United States and overseas. He writes full-time and lives in Woodland Hills, California.

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