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Revised Execution Protocols Deny Chaplains Hours Prior to Execution

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March 20, 2017

In an odd and unexplained rule change proposal, California may ban chaplains from meeting with death row prisoners nearer than three hours before their scheduled execution.

The California Department of Corrections (CDCR) is engaged in a detailed revision of its procedures for ending the lives of prisoners sentenced to death. The elaborate set of rules specifies in minute detail death drug formulation, testing, staff training and numerous other aspects of executions.

But one unexplained new provision would prohibit the doomed inmate from meeting with a chaplain in the last three hours before the scheduled execution.

More than three hours ahead a chaplain could meet with the convict. But within three hours the religious counselor would be barred from being present with the person about to lose their life. The only possible contact during the prisoner’s last three hours might be by phone.

“In the previous protocols, the chaplain could stay until a few minutes before,” says Rev. George Horan, a Los Angeles priest.

But the proposed new rule changes that dramatically. The final three hours before death is “the time that the person needs them the most,” says Fr. Horan, adding that the new draft rule “defeats the purpose of spiritual advising.”  

Horan was chaplain at the Men’s Central Jail in Los Angeles for 30 years. He still works with prisoners and is a leading figure in the restorative justice community.

“I know a lot of people on death row,” he says simply.

“When you (the state) are involved in pre-meditated murder, you are not thinking of the spiritual welfare of the person you are killing. It is not surprising that the CDCR would remove the last person who might bring some comfort, hope, and support to the person to be executed.”  

California’s draft rule has undergone numerous revisions since first proposed in 2015.

But in spite of appeals by religious leaders, state officials have refused to relent on their new three-hour provision, or even to explain it.

The draft regulations go to great lengths to specify how death drugs should be formulated and used, and even propose safeguards to protect the prisoner from undue pain prior to his/her death.

In another very odd twist, the CDCR has changed the wording in the protocols from “spiritual advisor” to “minister of the Gospel.”  This change completely eliminates a rabbi, imam or a Buddhist monk from providing spiritual comfort and guidance to a condemned person.

It is hard to even imagine that this is what CDCR actually meant to do in its new regulations.

California’s last legal execution took place in 2006. But the death chamber at San Quentin remains available and the detailed revision of regulations for an execution indicate that the state wants to be ready to do so again.

The death penalty is estimated to have been carried out about 700 times since California became a state. In its early days legal executions often took place locally, including hangings in county jails.

Currently about 750 people are housed on “death row” in California prisons, 90 per cent in San Quentin, the only place where executions may be carried out in California.

While the death penalty still is legal and public opinion is slightly in favor, the trend has been edging away from the death penalty.  A 2014 Field Poll found that 56 percent of Californians support the death penalty, which was a decline of about 15 per cent in support over 10 years.

Last November California voters considered two competing propositions. Prop. 62 would have abolished the death penalty.  It was defeated 47-53. But Prop. 66, streamlining the appeal process, passed 51-49.

While the state has not explained why it wants to bar chaplains from personal contact with prisoners in the last three hours of their lives, the secrecy has raised speculation. Some say the state may not want to allow the personnel involved to be identified. The state might also be seeking to protect the identity of medical personnel involved in the killing, since the draft regulations say the members of the execution team will remain anonymous and that medical personnel will not be reported to their licensing agencies for taking part in an execution.

But the state’s refusal to allow religious support in the final hours of a prisoner’s life is a serious injustice, according to clergy who provide support and hope for prisoners.

The California Catholic Conference and Catholic Legislative Network members have contributed significant comments to the revisions as they progressed forward.  The Conference will continue to do so and offer the opportunity to Network members when the time comes.