March 20, 2009

Church successfully voices opposition to death-row proposal

By Brigid Curtis Ayer

Lethal injection, today’s state imposed method of execution, may be less gruesome than a crucifixion, but the result is the same: the death of a human being.

Death-row inmates in Indiana spend an average of 12 to 15 years waiting to be executed. According to clergy who work in prison ministry, the agony awaiting death may actually be worse for inmates than the execution itself.

This wait time could have been made even more grueling had a provision of a bill to move death-row inmates to solitary confinement been successful.

Concerns raised about this aspect of the bill by the Indiana Catholic Conference and those who minister to people on death row during a recent Senate hearing convinced the bill’s author to amend the proposed legislation to further investigate the housing of death-row inmates through an interim study panel.

Senate Bill 296, authored by Sen. Brent Steele (R-Bedford), requires the sentencing policy study committee to study the issue of housing death-row inmates, and changes the time of when executions can occur. The bill passed the Senate on Feb. 23 by a unanimous vote and awaits a hearing in the House.

Deacon Malcolm Lunsford, a permanent deacon for the Gary Diocese and volunteer chaplain at the Indiana State Prison in Michigan City, said the reason for the lengthy wait on death row is because Indiana has one of the best appeals systems in the country, which ensures that innocent people are not wrongfully executed.

Despite the long wait, the Indiana Department of Corrections raised several concerns, including wanting more flexibility in housing death-row inmates in an effort to stave off possible overcrowding in the years to come.

Deacon Lunsford, who ministers to 16 of the 17 death-row inmates at the Indiana State Prison, said that change would have allowed inmates to be moved to solitary confinement units for over a decade prior to their execution, which, from the Catholic Church’s perspective, constituted cruel and inhumane punishment.

Senate Bill 296, in its original form, would have granted the Indiana Department of Corrections the ability to move death-row inmates from the Indiana State Prison to the nearby Westville Correctional Center.

The Westville facility, which previously was a state mental health facility, was designed as a punitive unit for inmates who broke prison rules, said Deacon Lunsford.

“Westville was never designed to be a place where prisoners would be placed for decades,” Deacon Lunsford said.

In 2003, the Indiana Department of Corrections lobbied to get $4.5 million to renovate the Indiana State Prison so that it could be the permanent home of death-row inmates, Deacon Lunsford said.

“The department got the money, electrified the doors, put in more cameras, and made other renovations and now,

three and a half years later, they want to move inmates. It just doesn’t make any sense,” he said.

Westville has very small cells, poor ventilation and only a tiny slit of a window, and Deacon Lunsford noted.

“Studies show that kind of treatment drives men crazy. At ISP [Indiana State Prison], the guys have a place to exercise and can get outside,” he said. “We have Mass on Thursday mornings. … At Westville, there are only solid blank walls.”

The Indiana State Prison has bars on one side allowing for open communication.

“We frequently talk and pray together in small groups,” Deacon Lunsford said.

“The death chamber is at ISP. Death row is at ISP. The law says we have to kill them,” said Deacon Lunsford, but he added, “Do we have to torture them for 20 years or more before we kill them?”

After listening to testimony in opposition to this aspect of the bill by Glenn Tebbe, executive director of the Indiana Catholic Conference, and Deacon Lunsford, and reading a letter from Father David Link, dean emeritus of the University of Notre Dame School of Law, and other clergy members regarding the detrimental effects a change like this would create for death-row inmates and clergy, Sen. Steele decided to have the bill amended to study the issue rather than make the change now.

“There was some belief that the current facility is older, less secure and has fewer cameras for surveillance,” Sen. Steele said. “There are cameras in the halls, but not in the cells themselves. But clergy testified that it would create a lot of problems allowing them to minister to the prisoners.

“To put them in a more secure lockup would be a complete inconvenience for clergy. Newer does not always translate to better,” Sen. Steele said. “There are only 17 [people] on death row, so we are not talking about a large number of inmates. It doesn’t mean we won’t change, but it doesn’t have to be changed right away. The summer study committee will give everyone ample time to testify who would like to do so.”

Another provision of Senate Bill 296 was a change in time for executions. Current law requires that executions take place after midnight and before sunrise.

Senate Bill 296 removes the requirement of when an execution takes place.

Deacon Lunsford said the time change may be a positive step for all involved.

“Having an execution after midnight creates a hardship for everyone involved. It’s hard on the family, the clergy, [and] the Department of Corrections staff,” he said. “There are typically protesters who show up when there’s an execution. This causes a hardship for the local law enforcement officers, too.”

Senate Bill 296 passed the Senate by a 48-0 vote, and has yet to receive a hearing in the House. The bill is assigned to the House Rules and Legislative Procedures Committee.

(Bridget Curtis Ayer is a correspondent for The Criterion. To learn more about the Indiana Catholic Conference, log on to

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