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Carrying out executions took a secret toll on workers — then changed their politics

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  1. AugustusFerdinand

    Pretending to die isn't typically part of a correctional officer's job. But when the court issues a death warrant, there's often a team that has to rehearse the execution of the prisoner. In Nevada, one of the people they practiced on was officer Catarino Escobar.

    Escobar wasn't nervous when his colleagues handcuffed him and escorted him out of the holding cell. But then the officers took him into the gas chamber. About the size of a bathroom stall, the room is framed with large bay windows so people can watch from outside as prisoners take their last breaths. It was inside that space that something strange started to happen to him.

    As the officers strapped Escobar down to the gurney, his vision narrowed. He yearned for his mother, then his brother. Escobar wanted his family with him, he said, because for what felt like 20 minutes, he was absolutely certain his life was over.

    "I wasn't acting or playing," said Escobar. "I believed that I was being executed."

    During the past 50 years, 1,554 death sentences have been carried out across the U.S. Hundreds of people like Escobar played a role in each of those executions, and again, hundreds more are getting to work. Five states scheduled seven executions over the last two months of 2022 alone.

    There are legal restrictions to revealing the identities of many of the workers while they're employed, and a culture of secrecy tends to keep them quiet long after they leave their posts. But NPR's investigations team spoke with 26 current and former workers who were collectively involved with more than 200 executions across 17 states and the federal death chamber. They were executioners, lawyers, correctional officers, prison spokespeople, wardens, corrections leaders, a researcher, a doctor, an engineer, a journalist and a nurse. Many are sharing their names and stories publicly for the first time.

    "Nobody talked about it," said Escobar, who has never even told his family about what he did in the death chamber. "We all knew to keep it silent."

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