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Death on the Installment Plan | The Nation

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Death on the Installment Plan

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Terre Haute, Indiana

About the Author

Jonathan Shainin
Jonathan Shainin is on the staff of the New Yorker. He is editor, with Roane Carey, of The Other Israel, (New Press).

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Terre Haute may be home to a now-famous United States Penitentiary, to Indiana State University, to the Eugene V. Debs museum and, for the time being, to America's most-interviewed merchants and ordinary people, but its most prominent feature is the one that makes it practically indistinguishable from almost all of our medium-sized nonurban places. That is a four-mile stretch of divided highway lined with reassuringly familiar commercial outlets: mammoth superstores, chain restaurants and fast-food establishments, a big mall in the middle and smaller strip malls in both directions. In recent years, the city's center of gravity has migrated south toward its consumer fortresses; on one walk through two short blocks at the center of the once-bustling downtown, I passed six empty storefronts. Unlike the prison less than two miles away, which is located such that almost no one in town should have to even drive past it, this retail metropolis has become Terre Haute's public face.

There's a saying here, that the town's major import is fast-food joints and its major export is people. But recently the formula shifted: Coming into town were a thousand journalists, 300 lawmen and a few hundred protesters, while all that was going out were two dead bodies.

After Timothy McVeigh died and the massive media encampment--a city of satellite trucks, tents and trailers that another inmate christened "Bloodstock"--departed from prison grounds, there wasn't much left to see. From the rarely traveled road that runs nearby, the collection of closely packed red brick buildings looks like an oversized high school, albeit with an abundance of fencing and a guard tower. Leading up to Juan Raul Garza's execution eight days later, the only sign outside the prison of the events within was some orange plastic temporary fencing, meant to contain the protesters on the lawn.

Terre Haute has been home to this prison since 1940, without really noticing, even when the federal death chamber was sited here in 1995. But now that executions have begun, the town cannot remain unchanged for long. When an execution takes place, there is something that persists in the air--it's present, it's local news, right next to the winner of the Miss Indiana Pageant and the story of a local father and son appearing on Who Wants to Be a Millionaire? in your morning paper.

For years, social scientists have tried to measure the effects of executions on states and cities that perform them, usually looking for a corresponding decline in homicides, but for years it has been impossible to prove any deterrent effect. In 1975, criminologist William Bowers presented the first of a series of papers that diverged radically from the claims of deterrence. "The failure to find deterrence in study after study," Bowers wrote, "may add up to more than the absence of deterrence"--in this case, to what he termed the "brutalization effect." His seminal study of executions in New York State from 1907 until 1963 found an increase of nearly two homicides in the month following an execution, and almost one and a half in the month after that. More recent work has established that the greater the publicity accorded an execution--the deeper its penetration into consciousness--the more dramatic the brutalizing effect on those prone to violence. No one has studied the effects of contemporary executions on American cities where they are carried out, but it's not unreasonable to expect that in towns like Terre Haute, where details related to upcoming or recent executions are front-page news for weeks at a time, they would be significant.

Terre Haute was witness to an execution with unprecedented amounts of local publicity along with a torrent of national and international media attention. In the middle of April--a month before McVeigh's original execution date--a local reporter was telling visiting media that "we eat, sleep and breathe McVeigh." On the morning the United States finally taught Timothy McVeigh his lesson, two Terre Haute teenagers doused a building at 220 N. 21st Street with gasoline and set it aflame in a dispute with residents of a first-floor apartment. Their intended targets weren't home, but the blaze spread quickly to the second floor, killing a 10-year-old boy, his 9-year-old cousin and severely burning his mother. We'll never know the precise cause of such acts. But if we continue to meet violence with more of the same, we should hardly expect the condemned men to be the only ones worse off for it.

Until Terre Haute stepped into the spotlight, the execution capital of the United States was Huntsville, Texas. In 1923, concerned that executions in local counties were little more than lynchings, the Texas legislature ordered all state executions relocated to the prison at Huntsville. The day that order took effect, Huntsville's warden, Capt. R.F. Coleman, submitted his resignation. "It just couldn't be done, boys," he told the Dallas Morning News. "A warden can't be a warden and a killer too. The penitentiary is a place to reform a man, not kill him." Coleman was replaced by a former sheriff, who supervised the deaths by electrocution of five black men in his fourth day on the job, and Huntsville never looked back. There have been 248 executions there since 1982--141 in the past four and a half years alone. Dennis Longmire, a professor of criminal justice at Sam Houston State University, has lived in Huntsville for 244 of those executions. He speaks of a town "coarsened" and "significantly hardened" by both the repetition of death and the media attention. "It's like living near an abattoir," Longmire says. "The executions themselves become part of the community, a part of our culture." Last year, a team from the local high school traveling to an academic competition in Louisiana wore T-shirts that read Huntsville: We Don't Only Execute. We Educate. In 1998, Huntsville's mayor unwittingly described the media attention to Karla Faye Tucker's death by lethal injection as a "shot in the arm" for the local economy. The seven prisons in Huntsville--"the victims' rights capital of the world" in the argot of prison officials--are the backbone of that economy, providing 5,800 jobs to a town of 35,000 people.

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