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Less than a century ago in the U.S., federal doctors conducted a range of experiments on American prisoners, infecting them with cancer, syphilis, the pandemic flu, and other illnesses. Although improved bioethics have prevented the continuance of such research, lawmakers recently approved an untested and potentially brutal means of capital punishment.
Oklahoma, Mississippi, and Alabama authorized nitrogen gas as a method of carrying out the death penalty since pharmaceutical companies are increasingly refraining from selling lethal injection drugs due to their controversy. Thus, the new procedure will expectedly be used for numerous convicts, as reported by the Council of State Governments.
Although the use of nitrogen is a faster and cheaper alternative, many are concerned that it may inflict cruel and unusual punishment upon inmates.
Cheaper and Faster Alternative
About 1471 executions have been performed in the U.S. since the year 1976, as calculated by the Death Penalty Information Center. A study by Susquehanna University found the financial implications, with each inmate costing the nation $1.12 million more than those in the general prison population. Adoption of the nitrogen technique could save the country millions of dollars.
The measure is also quicker than standard techniques. It works by covering the individual’s mouth and nose with a mask that expels the gas. The compound itself is not toxic. In fact, the substance composes 78% of the air we breathe. Instead, asphyxiation will result in minutes due to the lack of oxygen.
Are speed and cost efficiency more valuable than the potential agony brought to the recipient, however?
According to Representative Jim Hill (R–AL), the process is entirely “humane, quick, and painless.” The U.S. Chemical Safety and Hazard Investigation Board asserts that one to two breaths of the product may result in unconsciousness without discomfort or other symptoms.
Lack of Evidence
However, there is insufficient scientific evidence to support both Rep. Hill’s and the Board’s assertions.
A study published in the American Journal of Pathology examined the impact of oxygen displacement via nitrogen gas on rats for 24 to 72 minutes. The animals resultantly experienced hemorrhaging, excess blood flow and fluid buildup, and damage to specific nerve cells of the cortex, hippocampus, brain stem, and spinal cord.
Compared to the other gases involved in the trial, nitrogen produced greater lesions and massive hemispheric cell necrosis. When performed on the rats, brain imaging or other means of tracking pain responses were not conducted. Furthermore, the gas has never been tested on humans.
Although lack of oxygen to the brain induces unconsciousness in mere seconds or minutes, it is unknown whether the emissions result in agony. Incidentally, an unconscious state is not indicative of lack of senses. As reported by Liberty Nation, some unconscious patients can react to commands by moving a body part, indicating that they are capable of feeling stimuli.
Why does it Matter?
Some may question why the feelings of prisoners during execution matter? After all, they were convicted of horrific crimes, such as rape and murder.
Many opponents of capital punishment, however, argue that those on death row are undeserving of such treatment, as they may not be entirely able to control their actions.
According to LN, 20% of inmates have a personality disorder, especially involving abnormalities in the prefrontal cortex. This region of the brain is responsible for regulating impulse control, decision making, and other executive functions. Thus, ability to control their actions may be impaired.
In fact, it is not uncommon for the prison system to inadequately substitute as a psychiatric ward. After committing heinous crimes, often due to their illnesses, numerous patients are condemned to solitary confinement, exceedingly worsening their symptoms, as explained by the Pulitzer Prize-winning author Ron Powers in No One Cares About Crazy People.
Nitrogen gas is an untested method of asphyxiation. Americans will witness what seems to be a return of scientific experimentation on prisoners if no intervention in the current justice system occurs.