Corey Johnson, a federal death row prisoner who is scheduled to be executed on Jan. 14, has tested positive for COVID-19, his lawyers said Friday.
He is the second known person on federal death row to contract the coronavirus. Dustin Higgs, who is scheduled to be put to death on Jan. 15, was confirmed positive on Thursday.
The news of an outbreak on death row comes as the Trump administration faces ongoing criticism for holding executions during the pandemic. The federal government restarted capital punishment this summer after a 17-year hiatus. So far, 10 men have been put to death. Along with Johnson and Higgs, Lisa Montgomery is also scheduled to be executed in January — an unprecedented spree of executions by an outgoing administration after it lost an election.
The prison complex where those sentenced to death are housed, FCC Terre Haute in Indiana, has seen a rapid spike in cases in recent weeks. As of today, 309 incarcerated people had contracted the virus, an increase of 45 cases in the past 10 days.
In a statement, Johnson’s lawyers called on the Department of Justice to withdraw his execution date.
“Mr. Johnson’s diagnosis will substantially interfere with his attorneys’ ability to have meaningful contact with him during these critical days before his scheduled execution, and the widespread outbreak on the federal death row only confirms the reckless disregard for the lives and safety of staff, prisoners, and attorneys alike,” they wrote. “If the government will not withdraw the execution date, we will ask the courts to intervene.”
In a statement, the American Civil Liberties Union blasted the government’s decision to fast-track executions during the pandemic, calling the outbreak on death row predictable.
“We have been warned by public health experts for months that such an outbreak would not only live within the prison walls, but would spread to Terre Haute staff, their families, and communities,” said Cassandra Stubbs, director of the ACLU’s Director of Capital Punishment Project. “These executions have cut against every recommendation and public health measure that has been put forth, and the federal government squarely bears the blame for this escalating outbreak.”
Each execution brings together a mass of people from across the country, including around 40 Bureau of Prisons staff, and has the potential to become a superspreader event. After the November execution of Orlando Hall, his spiritual adviser tested positive for the coronavirus, as did eight members of the Bureau of Prisons execution team.
Two prisoners at Terre Haute who are not on death row are currently suing the government to halt the upcoming executions, arguing that holding such events is putting them and all the other incarcerated people in the complex at risk of serious illness or death. Lisa Montgomery, the only woman on federal death row, who is scheduled to be executed on Jan. 12, has not yet been transferred to Terre Haute. She is currently incarcerated at a women’s medical prison in Texas. Two of her attorneys contracted the virus after visiting her behind bars.
In an email to HuffPost, the Bureau of Prisons refused to disclose the number of inmates on death row who have tested positive, citing privacy interests and ongoing litigation. It also declined to confirm the number of people who are held in the Special Confinement Unit where death row inmates live, but it is believed that around 50 men are housed there.
Shawn Nolan, a lawyer for Dustin Higgs, said he was not sure when he would be able to see his client again due to his COVID-19 diagnosis. Nolan has also asked the government to withdraw his client’s pending execution date.
“It’s no surprise to us that this happened,” he told HuffPost. “There’s rumors about a lot of the guys testing positive, although we don’t have much other information yet.”
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