Tribune-Star Readers' Forum

Executions at federal prison not a legacy to be proud of

In 2020, there have been more federal executions than over the last 57 years combined. Five executions have occurred this year, opening a floodgate since the last federal execution 17 years ago.

Two more are set for the first week of fall. All of them in Terre Haute.

Growing up in Terre Haute, it has always seemed ironic to me that we are nationally known for the shrine of one of only 13 canonized saints in the United States and the only penitentiary that executes inmates on federal death row. Terre Haute is home for me, so I often reflect on the legacy we leave behind as a community.

One of my favorite stories growing up was about my grandfather, John E. Etling, who founded Catholic Charities here in Terre Haute. He wasn’t even Catholic at the time, but he saw the poverty that existed as a high school art teacher and felt like he should do something. In the 1970s, there were many Cuban immigrants seeking refuge in the area, but nowhere for them to go.

My grandfather began opening the Bethany House on 14th and Locust, so their families would have a place to sleep at night. He did not ask questions, he simply offered shelter. He left behind a legacy of compassion, hospitality, and social justice.

As a second-year medical student at Indiana University School of Medicine, it has become conflicting for me to comprehend the use of medicine to end a human life in the death penalty.

Just last year, I pledged the Hippocratic Oath to “do no harm” in my white coat, a promise we will be held accountable to for the rest of our lives. 

This year, our pharmacology professor taught us about pentobarbital, a short-acting barbiturate used as a sedative or anti-convulsant. It is dangerous, though, she reminded us. When given too much, it can severely depress the central nervous system. A lethal dose and everything shuts down. This past summer, the Supreme Court ruled 5-4 in favor of the use of pentobarbital for executions. Medicine used not to protect human lives, but weaponized to permanently end them.

The legacy we leave behind as a community in Terre Haute will be defined by how we treat the most vulnerable among us. We may be inclined to think that surely a federal death row inmate is unworthy of compassion or human dignity, but I challenge you to reconsider this notion.

A community that fails to fight for human life, regardless of the circumstance, is a community that has failed to love.

So, I urge you to do something. Just like my grandfather did when he saw that Terre Haute could be better. Two more executions are set for September 22 and September 24.

We must call Attorney General William Barr (202-353-1555) and tell him we oppose the federal executions. We must learn by reading about Bryan Stevenson, a death row lawyer, or watch the movie based on his life, Just Mercy. We must peacefully protest outside the federal penitentiary on the execution dates.

We must change the legacy of Terre Haute to the city where executions ended because our community fought for human life.

— Mary Ann Etling, Indianapolis

Learning lessons from a pandemic

It is time for us as Americans to take stock of our society, and learn some lessons. COVID isn’t good. COVID is in fact very bad, especially in the United States. 

However, that does not mean that nothing good can come from it. There are many problems with how we run our society that have been brought to the fore by the debacle that has been our national response. They have always been there, but they are especially obvious now. If we can fix our response and learn the correct lessons, it may even be possible to save lives in the long run, but we need to fix our response, and we need to learn the lessons.

1. Accept tests for highly contagious, deadly diseases from other countries. While we were struggling to develop an effective test, other countries were running massive testing regimes. We could have done that, too, but we refused to accept tests from the WHO. I don’t know why.

2. If a disease is spread through respiratory droplets, assume wearing masks will help. It prevents some droplets from moving away from an affected person. Assume, also, that the disease can be spread by asymptomatic individuals. If not, great, but better safe than sorry.

3. Fund public health departments. An understaffed CDC was a fairly significant part of our testing disaster. This public health system also needs to coordinate hospitals. Sharing supplies and capacity is useful during a pandemic or a bad flu season.

4. Everyone needs affordable health care, not reliant on having a job. This could be a Medicare-for-all scheme, or it could be a heavily regulated private insurance scheme. For more information about how these could work, I recommend watching Sick Around the World.

5. Paid sick leave is a must. A two-week quarantine while you’re not being paid is a disaster. This is true during a pandemic and also, you know, flu season. If people are still being paid if they don’t go to work, they are less likely to go to work sick and infect other people.

6. Minimum wage jobs are among the most essential. Minimum wage should be higher. There is little actual evidence that raising the minimum wage costs jobs. These people do important work. They deserve to be compensated accordingly.

7. States shouldn’t run unemployment. When people need it the most, they are the least able to pay. Unemployment needs to have excess capacity. When a lot of people need help all of a sudden, it should work.

8. We need a better way of making sure all children get fed. Schools close during emergencies, also summer and weekends.

9. We need affordable, widespread broadband. The homework gap is always real, and it is especially bad when everything is closed.

10. Don’t aim for maximum efficiency. Efficiency is vulnerability.

11. Use the DPA. It doesn’t need to be for a war.

12. If the federal government doesn’t help renters during a catastrophe, state and local governments won’t be able to.

13. Don’t let all the things be made in one country. Having everything made in one country is a recipe for disaster.

14. Prisoners need access to soap, water and medical treatment. It is OK to release nonviolent offenders, but there are drawbacks to it. Ideally, prison population would be permanently reduced.

15. Money needs to be given to the people, and it needs to be given on demand. Having a limit on total spending gives bigger, more powerful groups an incentive to cheat.

— Karoline Fairbanks, Terre Haute

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