In the United States, we have few qualms about imposing punishment on those convicted of a crime. We prefer, however, not to see what punishment looks like. Those found guilty serve out their time hidden behind prison walls. Those convicted of the most heinous crimes are put to death in private under protocols designed to obscure any hint of pain.
A new law in Georgia has literally made information about the drugs used in lethal injection a "confidential state secret." (The ensuing litigation has received national attention.) Georgia is not alone in its quest to obscure the means by which it will put inmates to death. At least five other states have attempted to shield such information from the public and from those wishing to legally challenge lethal injection protocols.
At the center of the debate surrounding these protocols is the question of how many drugs are actually necessary for execution. The primary reason that many states chose to use three drugs when using one drug would be just as effective is that the one-drug protocol results in longer executions that may not leave observers with the comforting impression that the condemned is merely drifting off to sleep. The subsequently administered drugs used in the three-drug "cocktail" serve to minimize involuntary movements that may be distressing to onlookers. In other words, in the absence of the three-drug protocol, we might actually be forced to grapple with the questions of what it means -- and what it looks like -- for the state to end someone's life.
The state's desire to keep the nature of executions a secret is not surprising when viewed as part of a larger trend. Punishment in the United States has, over time, become increasingly shielded from the public eye. Town square hangings have given way to clinical procedures carried out under strict decorum and shrouded secrecy. In colonial times, incarceration itself was rare -- eschewed in favor of penalties that emphasized public shaming, such as whipping, branding and mutilation. In the United States, such punishments are today viewed as unduly harsh and have fallen out of favor. Instead, the dominant means of punishment has become locking the convicted away for years on end, making the nation a world leader in incarceration rates.
While the effects of mass incarceration are far from invisible to communities that have been decimated by high incarceration rates, the way in which we punish means that many Americans never have to face what punishment means -- for inmates, for their families, and for their loved ones. They are never exposed to the psychological pain of punishment, or the realities of incarceration: long stretches of solitary confinement; living in fear for one's life in facilities that are fraught with violence, overcrowded and understaffed; sexual exploitation and sexual assault, suffering through extreme heat, bitter cold, and unsanitary living conditions; and having little to no access to adequate medical care.
For many, prison is an abstraction -- trials of guilt and innocence remain public spectacle, but once the verdict is handed down and the courtroom clears, little thought is afforded to where those convicted will go and how they will be treated. It is, in part, this distance from reality that has allowed incarceration rates to reach such unknown heights. Yet we expect legislators, voters and jurors to make reasoned judgments about how to punish and whether a given punishment is appropriate when the vast majority have no way of knowing what various punishments actually entail.
As the means we use to punish become more obscure, it becomes more difficult not only to challenge them legally -- as demonstrated by recent litigation regarding the method of execution -- but also to challenge them politically. As the old adage goes, out of sight, out of mind: it is hard to generate outrage against something that to most is invisible. For those familiar with the realities of punishment in America, there is no question such outrage is warranted. But the more we allow the way in which we punish to remain a secret, and the more the average American remains blissfully ignorant, the longer justice will remain blind.
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