My family has a long history of working for the Washington State Prisons. My father and grandfather worked at the State Penitentiary, where I eventually served as the warden, and my two sons are also Corrections Officers. I became directly involved with policies, procedures, and preparation for executions beginning in the mid-1980s when Charles Campbell’s case began generating potential execution dates. At that time as Captain my duties included supervision of the Intensive Management Unit where Death Row was located. My job required me to be intimately involved at a level very few people ever experience.
The death penalty takes a heavy toll on public servants who participate in putting someone to death. Over a hundred corrections staff are involved in carrying out an execution. From the employee who stays with the condemned in the hours leading up to the execution, to those who accompany the victim’s family to the death chamber, to the person assigned to stay on the phone waiting for the authorization to proceed, they are all carrying out an arcane and needless policy. Ultimately, the death penalty is not about whether a given person deserves to live or die — it's about whether government should be making that call and asking its citizens to participate in the process.
The death penalty is also prohibitively expensive and costs much more than incarcerating an inmate for the duration of their natural life. There are substantial costs that are hard to tease out in managing a death penalty inmate in maximum security, which is where Death Row is housed. Maximum security resources could be much more effectively used to house people that truly need intensive management—because most death row inmates don’t actually require that level of security. Most people are also unaware of the costs of litigating a death sentence and preparing to carry out an execution, the likelihood of which is extremely low.
Consider, if you will, there have been 79 death penalty trials since 1981. This has resulted in only 5 executions—3 of whom voluntarily waived their appeals. This produces a very low expectation the death penalty will actually be implemented. Nearly 80% of death sentences are overturned on appeal, in which case the individual typically ends up with a life sentence without the possibility of parole. I can easily say it’s a waste of taxpayer money. During the onset of the Great Recession, I had to close prisons and lay off employees in a desperate effort to save money. I eyed Death Row and the death penalty as a colossal waste of resources. From a bureaucrat’s standpoint, from a politician’s standpoint, from a prison expert’s standpoint, that money could be used much more effectively to save lives than to cause one man to die.
Washington’s death penalty system is expensive, it’s ineffective, and it’s an overreach of government. It is my hope that Washington will replace capital punishment with life in prison without the possibility of parole, a move that I believe is both reasonable and pragmatic.