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Our Reporters Who've Been Covering The Federal Executions Now Have COVID

Terre Haute Federal Prison

The U.S. Penitentiary in Terre Haute is the facility where all federal executions are carried out. It's also home to the largest coronavirus outbreak in the federal system. (WFIU/WTIU News)

The U.S. government wrapped up an unprecedented execution spree at a federal penitentiary in Terre Haute on Jan. 16. Officials carried out the death sentences of 13 people beginning July of 2020 and ending days ahead of President Joe Biden’s inauguration.

I was asked to begin covering executions for the WFIU/WTIU Newsroom in September of 2020 for local and NPR coverage. Despite masks and sanitizing efforts, I was concerned about contracting COVID-19 and followed precuations at the prison. 

READ MORE: As Federal Executions Conclude, Families Grieve

In December, the facility in Terre Haute was the site of the largest coronavirus outbreak in the federal system. According to attorneys and loved ones of the inmates, as many as half of the people on federal death row have tested positive for the coronavirus. These included the final two to die, Corey Johnson and Dustin Higgs.

A week to the day after witnessing the execution of Corey Johnson, on Jan. 14, 2021, I received notification that I tested positive for COVID-19. My colleague Adam Pinsker witnessed the execution of Dustin Higgs on Jan. 16. He received a positive test result nine days later. 

READ MORE: U.S. Executes Inmate Despite Unresolved Disability Claim

Within hours of receiving my test result on Jan. 21, I reached out to the U.S. Bureau of Prisons to make sure their staff knew to get tested. I wanted to grant permission to share my positive test result with any person I encountered. Most of the people we meet during the executions are anonymous and this seemed to be the quickest way to notify them. It also seemed like the fastest way to notify the many journalists I encountered.

The prison bureau communicates almost exclusively through email. It carefully screens and registers each journalist it allows on the premises. Media center parking must be applied for weeks in advance. Staffers check for IDs and credentials while referring to printed lists of approved journalists. They keep track of everything. 

Despite this, to my knowledge, the prison bureau did not contact a single one of the dozens of reporters who passed through the facility between Jan. 12 and Jan. 16. These include a lengthy list of reporters from Missouri and Kansas who began arriving days in advance of the execution of Lisa Montgomery, then the only woman on federal death row. They also didn’t contact the four witnesses I was with for many hours leading up to Johnson’s execution. 

READ MORE: U.S. Carries Out Its 1st Execution Of Female Inmate Since 1953

“Thank you for this information,” an official wrote back. “The BOP completes contact tracing with positive individuals based on the CDC recommendations (a close contact is someone who was within 6 feet of an infected person for a total of 15 minutes or more starting from 48 hours before illness onset until the time the patient is isolated). Since you tested positive on 1-21 and you were last at the facility on Jan. 15, nothing needs to be completed at this time. Thank you for notifying us and I hope you have a speedy recovery.”

I responded to that email and sent another a few days later explaining that my symptoms did begin during the two-day time period. Late Saturday, about 20 hours after Johnson’s execution, I came down with a mild headache and felt unusually tired. No surprise — it was an extremely stressful week. We witnessed two people put to death, including the brother of a woman we spent an afternoon getting to know. Each execution dragged hours beyond its scheduled time. And after each ended, a new workday began as we prepared radio and web stories.

Had I not tested positive for COVID-19, I wouldn’t have thought anything of it. But contact tracers working for the county health department and Indiana University reminded me that fatigue and headaches are also COVID-19 symptoms. For that reason, they instructed me to start counting my 10 days of isolation from Saturday, Jan. 16, the date of Johnson’s execution.

I was glad I took time off after the execution - not only because I was sick. Tracking down every journalist I could remember encountering became a full-time job. I’m friendly with a dozen or so regulars covering the executions. But in the age of COVID-19, there’s very little cause for interaction with anyone before or after the executions. It took time to track down phone numbers and email addresses to let them know to get tested. 

I didn’t, and still don’t, believe I was being overly cautious. The federal facility in Terre Haute is a death trap in more ways than one. It was not designed for social distancing. The last time an execution took place before last year was in 2003. Its designers never planned for a deadly virus, or for an administration that would conduct executions during a pandemic.

Each time I witnessed an execution, I accompanied several journalists packed into a van that stopped outside the execution chamber for up to an hour. All the reporters also went through airport-style security to get screened beforehand. And every time, we sat around for hours in the same room as the various last-minute stays and appeals worked their ways through the courts.

The last thing I wanted was to be responsible for infecting my colleagues with the deadly coronavirus. And I didn’t want any of the prison staff to get sick or spread it to their loved ones. I believed the prison bureau — whose media specialists always appeared to take the virus seriously — would notify the many people I encountered. They didn’t.

READ MORE: Judge Orders BOP To Implement Safety Measures Before Executions

On Wednesday, the bureau produced a compliance report that a federal judge in Indiana ordered it to complete after the executions. The order followed reports by journalists, including myself, that a member of the execution team failed to put on a mask for at least several minutes during the execution of Corey Johnson. This happened many times over the past six months. 

The government denied that it failed to follow mask procedures, despite accounts from reporters and Johnson’s spiritual advisor, Bill Breeden, who stood feet from Johnson as he died.

The bureau’s compliance report made no mention of positive test results at the prison during or after the executions. It didn’t mention the reporters who informed them of their results, and whether or not it carried out any contact tracing with staff they encountered.

Hours after that brief report emerged, The Associated Press reported our test results. The report’s co-author was one of the many fellow witnesses I notified about testing positive, as it became clear the prison bureau had no intention of informing anyone.

The bureau informed the AP that officials had been aware of a positive test result for days when contacted on Wednesday. A spokesperson also said that it did not initiate contact tracing or notify the other media witnesses because I didn’t inform them of the positive test until five days after the final execution, early on Jan. 16. Of course, I made sure they knew of the positive test as quickly as possible — less than four hours after learning of it myself.

READ MORE: Feds Withheld Info On Virus Cases Following Executions 

In the days leading up to that report, I tried to explain why the test result warranted some kind of action: “In addition to my colleagues, I’m particularly concerned about the wellbeing of three of yours,” I explained in a final email Jan. 26. They included the driver of a van, who I sat behind for 45 minutes, and a media specialist who sat in the passenger seat. The third was a staff member during the execution. For half an hour, we were pressed almost cheek to cheek on the same side of a window looking into the chamber. “I don’t have direct contact information for any of these people,” I reminded them.

I’m grateful WFIU/WTIU News had a system in place to prevent my infection from spreading to the rest of the staff. After each execution, we made sure to get tested before returning to the newsroom. But that may not be the case for many of the other journalists we encountered. And to this day, I have no idea if the prison bureau has mentioned any of this to the staffers who were in extremely close contact with two people infected with COVID-19.

If anyone involved in the executions became infected this time, it wouldn’t be the first time. Defense attorneys and the American Civil Liberties Union spent months imploring the government to pause the executions until a vaccine could be distributed, or at least until prison staff started following the rules. Members of the execution "teams" have tested positive multiple times since they began carrying out death sentences.  

After the final execution, before testing positive for COVID-19, Adam reported that the executioners finally began wearing masks the whole time it took to kill Dustin Higgs. We believe this change in procedure occurred only because media witnesses publicly contradicted U.S. officials who were repeatedly making false statements to a federal judge, shining some unexpected and unwelcome light on an otherwise opaque process.

Days later, after prison officials received information that might have helped protect those witnesses and their loved ones, they decided to leave them in the dark.

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