A gurney used to restrain condemned prisoners during the lethal injection… (Pat Sullivan / Associated…)
Reporting from Houston — The cost of executions is soaring, especially in the state that conducts the most: Texas. The reason? The necessary drugs have become increasingly hard to get.
A year ago it cost the Texas Department of Criminal Justice $83.55 for the drugs used to carry out an execution -- sodium thiopental, pancuronium bromide and potassium chloride.
Then last March the state was forced to replace sodium thiopental with pentobarbital after the U.S. supplier of the former drug halted distribution amid international protests. The same month, two death row inmates sued the state, alleging the decision to switch drugs was made in secret without public input; they called for a federal inquiry.
Switching to pentobarbital, also known as Nembutal, raised the cost of drugs for each execution to $1,286.86.
"While the cost of the other two drugs may have gone up, the difference is primarily due to pentobarbital,” Jason Clark, a spokesman for the Texas Department of Criminal Justice, told The Times on Friday.
Further, the Danish manufacturer of pentobarbital, Lundbeck, has announced that the drug is unsafe for use in lethal injections and restricted its sale for executions.
Texas prison officials say they have enough of the drug to carry out the five executions scheduled this year, but they declined to comment about how much of the drug they have or what they plan to do if supplies run low.
Prison officials are seeking a ruling from Texas Atty. Gen. Greg Abbott before releasing execution drug records, Clark said.
“We're not releasing information on our supplier, the amount we paid for specific drugs and the amount of drugs on hand,” Clark said. “The agency is seeking an AG's opinion to keep the information confidential.”
Last year Texas executed 13 inmates. The next scheduled execution is Feb. 29. George Rivas, 41, is set to die for the murder of a Dallas-area police officer during an armed robbery in 2000.
The price increase in execution drugs is also being felt in Georgia, Oklahoma, Ohio, Mississippi and South Carolina.
Oregon purchased $18,000 worth of the drugs last year, but the execution for which they were planned was ultimately called off by the governor -- who said he would approve no others. Corrections officials in other states had hoped they might be able to buy some of the leftover pentobarbital, but Oregon officials said last month that they had returned the drug to a wholesaler.
The execution drug shortage was highlighted earlier this month in a report in the Guardian about an investigation by the London-based human rights group Reprieve. Maya Foa, with the group’s Stop Lethal Injection Project, estimated the remaining stocks of pentobarbital in Georgia and Texas based on public records.
Foa calculated that Texas had 27 vials of pentobarbital left. The state needs four vials per execution -- two to inject the prisoner, two as backup -- meaning the state has enough for at least six executions, she estimated.
She estimated that Georgia had 17 vials of pentobarbital, enough for four executions.
Reached in London on Friday, Foa declined to comment about the estimates.
Georgia replaced sodium thiopenthal with pentobarbital in lethal injections last year. A corrections spokeswoman on Friday told The Times that the switch drove up costs, but she could not say by how much. She declined to say how much of the drug the department had on hand.
"The department has an adequate supply of all pharmaceuticals necessary to carry out any court-ordered execution procedures," spokeswoman Gwendolyn Hogan told The Times.
She and Clark, the Texas official, declined to comment about Foa's findings, citing security concerns.
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