Terre Haute, Indiana
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.