Happy Sunshine Week! 

Oklahoma Watch is highlighting the importance of government transparency and accountability with a series of stories and social media posts. Open records laws are designed to give everyone access to public information and hold government officials accountable. In many cases, however, claimed exemptions and bureaucratic red tape can make it difficult to get records.

In my realm of criminal justice, the lethal injection process is perhaps the most secretive area of government. This topic is especially relevant as a federal judge considers whether Oklahoma’s execution process causes unconstitutional pain and suffering.

The Oklahoma Department of Corrections’ execution protocol is available online. Five media members, one from the Associated Press and four selected at random, witness each execution and provide an independent account afterward. 

Other key details, including information about where the drugs were acquired and verification records, are shielded from the public.

The identity of those involved in the execution process has always been concealed. State officials say these individuals could be targeted by anti-death penalty activists and must remain anonymous. Few have challenged this provision.

Over the past decade, the restrictions have only expanded as pharmaceutical companies have grown reluctant to supply prison officials with execution drugs.

Oklahoma Watch is marking Sunshine Week (March 13-19) with a series of stories promoting open government.

Oklahoma and at least a dozen other states now protect the identity of lethal injection drug suppliers. This means the public has no means of knowing where the pharmaceuticals are manufactured, what their expiration date is and how much the state paid to acquire the drugs. 

There are significant risks associated with obtaining and using drugs from unregulated sources, according to this 2018 article published in the Journal of the American Pharmacists Association.  Three experts explain in the paper that drugs obtained from anonymous providers may be poorly compounded and contain “substandard ingredients.” 

“There is an urgent need for greater transparency regarding the sources and quality of drugs used,” the conclusion of the paper reads. “When a state department of corrections promotes opacity in the supply chain, it creates future risks and undermines our drug safety.”

Last month StateImpact Oklahoma reporter Catherine Sweeney asked the corrections department to comment on the necessity of the secrecy provisions. A spokesman declined to discuss the matter, citing pending litigation. The agency has stated in prepared statements that “extensive redundancies and validations have been implemented” to ensure drugs are verified and used correctly.

Courts have consistently dismissed requests from media members, death row prisoners and the general public to unveil lethal injection drug records, ruling that the state’s interest in carrying out executions supersedes the public’s interest in knowing where the drugs were obtained.

In January an Oklahoma County judge rejected a lawsuit seeking to compel the Department of Corrections to release information about the expiration date and quality testing of its lethal injection drugs. 

Do you think Oklahoma’s secrecy provisions for lethal injection drugs are necessary or excessive? Have questions about the death penalty? Send me a DM on Twitter or email Kross@Oklahomawatch.org.

What I’m reading

  • ‘No Light. No Nothing.’ Inside Louisiana’s Harshest Juvenile Lockup: Teenagers at a juvenile facility in St. Martinsville, Louisiana were left in solitary confinement for weeks and placed in shackles upon exiting their cells. Attorneys and justice experts liken the treatment to child abuse. [The Marshall Project]
  • Mass Incarceration: The Whole Pie 2022: The Prison Policy Initiative, a Massachusetts-based criminal justice think tank, pieces together local criminal justice data to show how many people nationally are incarcerated in federal lockups, state prisons and county jails. [Prison Policy Initiative]
  • Bill to Automate Oklahoma’s Expungement Process Goes to Senate: House Bill 3316, which would leverage technology to make expungement more accessible, cleared the House by an 87-4 vote on March 9. [CNHI News]
  • Julius Jones Speaks Out on House Bill 3903: ‘I Thought the State Was About Preserving Life’: Former death row prisoner Julius Jones spoke to KFOR over the phone to voice concerns over House Bill 3903. The bill would forbid the Pardon and Parole Board from hearing innocence claims from death row prisoners. A House vote on the bill is expected later this month. [KFOR]

Help Us Make a Difference

From the impact of COVID-19 behind bars to the effects of prison gerrymandering, my reporting focuses on how Oklahoma’s criminal justice system impacts people inside and outside of the system. It can take weeks or months for me to file public records requests, dig into documents and track down sources. As a nonprofit news organization, we rely on your financial support to do this time-consuming but important work. Help us make a difference.

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