TERRE HAUTE, Ind. (WTHI) - Some of the parties involved in upcoming executions at the federal prison in Terre Haute have filed lawsuits due to COVID-19.
If the federal executions happen as planned, they will be the first in 17-years. They are happening at an already unprecedented time in our nation's history.
The Bureau of Prisons reports five active, confirmed cases of COVID-19 at the Terre Haute facility.
Historically, executions at the prison have drawn outsiders to our community. From lawyers to demonstrators, and media crews from across the country.
We talked with Robert Dunham. He is the Executive Director of the Death Penalty Information Center. He raised a red flag about the timing of the executions due to the pandemic and pending litigation.
"Comes down to whether it's more important to carry out an execution in the middle of a pandemic that could put entire communities at risk, or wait until the virus is cured...or at least treatable, and then let's see what the law says," Dunham said.
He voiced two main concerns when it comes to health and safety.
The first is people gathering around the prison, possibly in close proximity...who could spread COVID-19.
The second is people who may take infection into or out of the prison.
"The government says it can create appropriate social distancing during the execution itself, and that remains to be seen, but we haven't heard anything about how they're going to be able to create social distancing in the hours of waiting. When you have people that have been exposed, potentially, to the virus in their communities who come to Terre Haute. Or you have people in hotel industries and at restaurants who may have been exposed and are taking it to the guests," Dunham told us.
We took these concerns to the Bureau of Prisons.
A spokesperson told us the agency is deeply concerned about the health and welfare of its inmates, staff, families, and communities.
As far as procedure goes, all attorneys, witnesses, and medical personnel will all be screened in a consistent manner. Demonstrators will receive face-coverings and be subject to screenings.
We also used the Department of Justice's online form to ask if it is responsible to carry out these executions given the pandemic. We did not receive a response.
With legal challenges on-going in the court system and the pandemic still at play, Dunham says the public has reason to be critical of the planned execution timeline.
"We should be focusing on taking care of each other and protecting each other and not taking reckless or unwanted risks," Dunham said. "But it looks like we have a government taking reckless, unwarranted risks for political reasons as opposed to criminal justice reasons."