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Nonfiction in Brief

DEATH WORK A Study of the Modern Execution Process by Robert Johnson (Wadsworth/Brooks-Cole Publishing Co., Belmont, Calif. 94002: $16.25; 174 pp.)

January 28, 1990|SONJA BOLLE

Like "The Prison Experience," "Death Work" tackles the question of justice, noting in its dedication "how tragically awry things can go for the victims of violent crimes and violent punishments." A book in the Contemporary Issues in Crime and Justice series, "Death Work" examines the process by which we implement the death sentence.

For about a decade--from the late 1960s to the late '70s--there was a moratorium on executions in the United States which seemed, Robert Johnson writes, "the culmination of a gradual but persistent decline in the use of the death penalty in the Western world during the 20th Century." The moratorium ended in 1977 with the well-publicized execution of Gary Gilmore. Since then, more than 100 people have been put to death by the state, and about 2,300 prisoners are on death row throughout the nation.

"Death Work" describes the institution of capital punishment, from the life inmates lead while awaiting execution to the functioning of the execution teams. For an institution to operate smoothly, every step must be uniform and streamlined, leading to such chillingly routine concerns as "keeping the prisoner calm," "maintaining emotional distance" and "calculated camaraderie."

The most powerful chapter--because it was personally experienced by the author--takes the reader through the steps leading to an execution in the electric chair. The "deathwatch" begins with the removal of the prisoner's possessions; he is then shaved and showered, and moved to the waiting cell. When his hour approaches, he is taken into the death chamber, strapped into the chair and masked. After electrocution, the body is removed to a "cooling room."

Robert Johnson's intention is not to change anyone's political stand on capital punishment. Instead, he wants to force anyone who thinks of the death sentence abstractly to face squarely how momentous and grievous an act it is to put a human being to death, no matter how securely we isolate ourselves from the machinery of state.

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