Stopping Alabama's addiction to torture

Alabama’s addiction to torturing poor people — disproportionately Black and brown people, and more often than not, people who are severely mentally ill — with inhumane correctional institutions, a dysfunctional parole system, and, in some cases, a secretive and sadistic lethal injection protocol, has been going on for so long, overwhelmingly, Alabamians and Americans are desensitized to it.

Leadership and meaningful — forceful and coercive federal — intervention must be employed to put a stop to it.

Unless you were born yesterday — or, unless your head’s been long-encased in a big block of sand — it’s fair to say, isn’t it: 2023 would be an atypical year in the 21st century if shocking stories weren’t being reported with regularity about Alabama torturing its prisoners — some condemned, and some not — sometimes to death?

In part, that’s why most people — even caring, compassionate people around the country — barely batted an eyelash when news emerged recently that Alabama’s Attorney General’s office had asserted, abominably, in a federal court filing, that the state is, after years of threatening, finally prepared to gas its condemned prisoners to death with nitrogen. The state’s attorneys have since heeded the prison system’s insistence it’s actually “not ready” to gas flesh-and-blood humans to death just yet; backtracking from its good-to-go-on-gassing hubris, the state now maintains, instead, in the face of some condemned prisoners’ willingness to choose virtually anything over Alabama’s current method of execution — colloquially called its “rattlesnake rodeo” — that Alabama’s gassing-to-death protocol is still being fine-tuned, and isn’t quite ready for “prime time”; “roll tide” soon though.

Admitting to “butter fingers” right now about deploying a new and untested method of execution, gassing condemned prisoners with nitrogen, is in some respect, a measure of improvement when it comes to Alabama’s recognition of its own limitations and shortcomings in the killing department.

Having “botched” 3 lethal injections in a row last year — and, with a track record long before that of slicing open with knives, serially sticking with needles, and chemically burning-drowning-and-suffocating its condemned prisoners — no one with any sense thinks Alabama’s first lethal injection execution of the year, that of James Barber, scheduled to occur sometime on July 20-21st, is going to go “smoothly” — much less humanely, and not cruelly and unusually.

Indeed Barber’s attorneys maintain “Barber faces a substantial risk of serious harm because, as the Eleventh Circuit already recognized, the ADOC has demonstrated a recent ‘pattern of superadding pain through protracted efforts to establish IV access.’”

Already strong, this argument received a considerable boost in separate litigation when U.S. District Judge Austin R. Huffaker Jr. ruled Kenneth Smith — whom the state tortured but did not kill in November — made plausible claims that the state would violate the 8th Amendment prohibition on cruel and unusual punishments if it tries to execute him again by lethal injection.

As reported by Al.com, “Huffaker, in his opinion and order issued [July 5], said Smith plausibly alleged pain and suffering during his execution attempt that went beyond receiving multiple sticks with needles in attempts to tap his veins.”

Huffaker wrote “Alabama has released no information about [its self-professed] ‘top to bottom’ [but in actuality short-lived, sham internal] review that shows it has fixed the problems that happened during the last three executions.”

Perhaps unsurprisingly, Barber’s attorneys’ arguments in this regard have mimicked Huffaker’s conclusions, though even more cynically they point out the only publicly released change Alabama has made to its execution protocol since 2022 — “the Year of Classic and Continuous Botched Alabama Executions” — is to add additional restraint straps to its execution gurney.

So what of “intervention” — forceful federal intervention — I submit is needed to end Alabama’s unchecked addiction to torturing its prisoners — prisoners like James Barber, the next man set to be squeezed to death in the heart of Dixie’s torture-vise?

In October of 2021, I argued in these pages that supposed death penalty abolitionists such as billionaire Richard Branson, his fellow “progressive-minded” billionaires, and, President Biden too for that matter (on behalf of one of the biggest businesses of all, the federal government), should put their money where their mouth is and: Stop investing money in states that perpetuate capital punishment, such as Alabama, until those states stop killing people.

This followed logically from my previously made — but still unheeded — proposal in April 2021: What if President Biden enacted a policy stating, henceforth, no federal dollars can be spent for trainings or conferences in pro-death penalty states like Alabama?

Now, in 2023, I want to add what would be yet another undeniably effective “bully pulpit” tactic President Biden should immediately deploy — if his administration has the inclination to live up to its previous campaign promise on capital punishment — and that’s this: The Biden administration should do just what it recently threatened to do over its concerns about Alabama’s restrictive abortion law, and threaten to halt plans to move U.S. Space Command’s headquarters from Colorado to Alabama.

Morally, ethically, and politically (for progressives at least), it makes no sense for the Biden administration to not hold back big money-making carrots from Alabama over its disregard and disrespect of abortion rights, thereby effectively prodding the state with a powerful stick, and not also do so over other important human rights issues generally — such as prisoners’ rights; this includes the right to not be subject to torture via unconscionable prison conditions, or, in the pursuit of vengeful capital punishment.

Stephen Cooper is a former D.C. public defender who worked as an assistant federal public defender in Alabama between 2012 and 2015.
Stephen Cooper is a former D.C. public defender who worked as an assistant federal public defender in Alabama between 2012 and 2015.

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. Follow him on Twitter @SteveCooperEsq

This article originally appeared on Montgomery Advertiser: Stopping Alabama's addiction to torture