The US State of Arkansas wanted to execute eight death row inmates before the end of April, before their stock of midazolam, one of the drugs used in the lethal injections, expired.

At the very least it appeared a callous plan. Certainly it's controversial.

But amid public opposition to the death penalty, including protests in the state capital Little Rock, lawyers have now obtained stays for four of those executions, according to news.com.au.

The State, unwavering, wants to press ahead with the others.

Advertisement

But Arkansas suffered two more setbacks overnight in its unprecedented bid to carry out eight executions this month.

The state's highest court granted a reprieve to an inmate scheduled to die on Thursday, and a county court said the state can't use one of its lethal injection drugs in any executions.

But one group of people that the courts haven't been thinking about are the wardens who have to carry out the killings.

The jailers burdened with this horrific task say the executions take their toll on them too. And they want them to stop.

'I don't think it ever goes away'

Former Florida State Prison warden Ron McAndrew and Former Arkansas death row chief Patrick Crain both went into their jobs supporting the death penalty. Both now oppose it.

Putting a prisoner to death "stays with you for a long time," says Ron McAndrew.

The former warden of Florida State Prison told AFP his own mental health had begun to deteriorate by the time he left his position in 1998 after taking part in eight executions.

McAndrew is particularly concerned about the psychological wellbeing of the handful of officials who would be involved if Arkansas were to proceed with the rapid-fire executions.

"We wanted the governor (of Arkansas) to understand that he's sitting in his office very comfortable. And these men are going to be partaking in a killing of another human being," McAndrew told AFP.

Ron McAndrew, a 23-year corrections officer, who rose through the ranks to become warden of a Florida maximum security prison. Photo/AP
Ron McAndrew, a 23-year corrections officer, who rose through the ranks to become warden of a Florida maximum security prison. Photo/AP

McAndrew doesn't use the word "execution". He considers it a euphemism.

"These officers, they get to know these inmates," he said.

"Twenty-four hours a day they work with these inmates. They feed them. They take them to get their showers, they take them for exercise. They stand in front of their cells and they talk to them when they feel lonely," McAndrew said.

"Suddenly it's the same officer who's taking them to another room to kill them."

"The experience is something that will stay with you for a long time; I don't think it ever goes away."

Patrick Crain worked for the Arkansas Department of Corrections from 2003 to 2007 and was head of the Varner unit's death row. He's shocked at the "crazy way" the executions were planned to be carried out, he told The Intercept.

He wonders how the "good people" (wardens) he worked with at Varner will cope.

"What are they going to tell their kids? 'Hi Johnny, I executed seven people?' he said.

"They're going to carry it around inside for the rest of their lives."

Crain's pro-death penalty stance changed, he said when "we came close to killing an innocent man" - a death-row inmate whose was released on the back of new DNA evidence.

Who are the executioners?

Arkansas prison authorities have refused to divulge the makeup of their execution team, fiercely protecting the identities of those involved.

"I can say that they are well-trained and qualified to carry out their respective responsibilities," said Solomon Graves, a spokesman for the Arkansas Department of Correction.

They're not experts, says Crain: they are a group of volunteers trained shortly before an execution takes place.

McAndrew, who took part in the deaths of eight convicts - three in Florida, and five in Texas as training - says that the executions in Arkansas will undoubtedly be carried out by the same five people.

"You can't change the team," he said.

"The officers that will carry out the executions, they have practised the executions several hundred times. They do it over and over and over again."

An officer volunteers to play the part of an inmate, McAndrew said.

"They take him from the cell, they put them on the gurney, they strap him down, they put them on the IVs," or intravenous lines.

Risk of error

Arkansas's original packed schedule would place added pressure on the execution team, increasing the risk of error, critics say. And no one wants to see a repeat of the agony Clayton Lockett suffered during his botched execution in Oklahoma in 2014.

The rapid schedule will put an extraordinary burden on the men and women required by the state to carry out this most solemn act, and it will increase the risk of mistakes in the execution chamber - which could haunt them for the rest of their lives," Allen Ault, Georgia's former commissioner of corrections who has overseen five executions, wrote in Time magazine in march.

"For me and many of my former colleagues in other corrections agencies, our role in executions led to a deep sense of guilt, sleepless nights and permanent emotional damage.

"Every person knows that taking a human life is one of our culture's most serious offences. It exacts severe mental trauma - even when done under the auspices of state law.

"I don't remember their names, but I still see their faces in my nightmares."

A group of former officials from all over the US, including McAndrew and Ault, wrote to Governor Hutchinson urging him not to impose such a burden on prison staff.

"Even under less demanding circumstances, carrying out an execution can take a severe toll on corrections officers' wellbeing," the letter said.

Arkansas's original plan to execute eight men in 10 days this month would have set a rate never seen since the United States resumed the death penalty in 1977.