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Analysis: Federal Executions in Indiana Became ‘Super-Spreader’ Events

Terre Haute has had hundreds of cases of the virus since the fall, and according to Bureau of Prisons (BOP) figures, 726 of the approximately 1,200 inmates at USP Terre Haute had tested positive for COVID-19 as of late January 2021. Many linked the first outbreak of the virus there to the execution of Cordia Hall, carried out on November 19, 2020.

Since the BOP does not routinely test asymptomatic inmates, the true number of infections is probably higher. Between December 16 and December 20, 2020, according to Colorado-based attorney Madeline Cohen, 33 of the 47 people on death row tested positive. This came after the executions of Alfred Bourgeois on December 11, 2020, and Brandon Bernard the day before.

All federal prisons and detention facilities have suffered severe outbreaks, as the virus rolled through virtually unchecked, killing and sickening prisoners and guards alike.

Prisoners have complained that guards often failed to wear proper PPE or take other protective measures when moving about their compounds, and many have been resistant to testing or vaccinations. The BOP for its part claims that it has no authority to force unionized prison personnel from complying with its COVID-19 protocol.

Witnesses at several executions said the guards often removed their masks during the proceedings. All members of the execution teams returned to work at their facilities, and at least eight later tested positive.

Individuals attending the executions were often transported together in vans and kept in small rooms, including the execution chamber, for up to four hours, without the ability to social distance. One, a Zen Buddhist spiritual adviser, Yusuf Ahmed Nur, who was present at Hall’s execution and later tested positive, said, “I could not say no to a man who would soon be killed. That I contracted COVID-19 in the process was collateral damage.”

This outbreak of the virus came as no surprise to public health experts. “These are the type of high-risk super spreader events that [health experts] have been warning against throughout the pandemic,” noted James L. Madara, executive vice president of the American Medical Association, who had asked that executions be postponed. Also troubling was the fact that prison officials didn’t inform Nur, other clergy, defense counsel and other witnesses that so many death row prisoners were testing positive for COVID-19 prior to the executions. 


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