Executive Director of the National Coalition to Abolish the Death Penalty
Donald Cabana, a former Mississippi prison warden who presided over executions, was not the usual ally for me and the National Coalition to Abolish the Death Penalty. But Donald Cabana loathed the death penalty. As I mark his passing and celebrate his life, he died this month at 67, I think about the vantage point from which he formed his opinions about capital punishment.
Cabana worked in prisons and corrections for more than 25 years in Massachusetts, Florida, Missouri and Mississippi. He was a seasoned traveler in places that many have opinions about but relatively few have firsthand knowledge of or experience with. He punished, counseled and cared for the people and the families that most people forget or wish never existed. He also supervised, cared for and counseled the people who must work in the most hopeless and saddest of places, our nation’s prisons and death chambers.
And that was the first point that he often made so eloquently. As a longtime corrections official, he was a man committed to holding people accountable for their actions, but he recognized the human folly of believing that we could ever pay back the harm caused by executing a murderer. Moreover, he believed it is the frailty of human nature that defies our efforts to be absolutely certain that the person we punish with death is not innocent. It is one thing, he would say, to pass a law about the death penalty, which in theory would punish the worst of the worst. It is another thing to actually do it and get it right. He once told lawmakers in Minnesota who were considering the reinstatement of the death penalty there, “Americans do not have the right to ask me, or any prison official, to bloody my hands with an innocent person’s blood.”
I first learned about Donald Cabana when I watched the BBC documentary 14 Days in May. In it, he served as an odd kind of tour guide in the strange world of Mississippi’s death row and the last two weeks of the life of condemned prisoner Edward Earl Johnson. I watched Donald Cabana go about his business at one time preparing to exact Mississippi’s ultimate punishment with chilling precision while at the same time, comforting and praying with the family and the man he was preparing to execute. Edward Earl Johnson maintained his innocence until the very end.
Donald Cabana will be remembered for his evolved opposition to capital punishment. He spoke eloquently about the risk of executing the innocent and the dehumanizing nature of the practice. However, his equally important critique of the death penalty — the devastating impact it has on the people who work in our prisons — does not get the attention it deserves.
Corrections workers must carry out the unenviable task of leading a man or woman to their death. Without emotion they attend to the last matters of business for the condemned. Perhaps they arrange a last phone call to a mother or escort a son from his last visit with family. They are both guard and caretaker.
While some might think Donald Cabana courageous for exposing the flaws in the capital punishment system, I think him most brave for exposing the way in which capital punishment left him broken.
In his memoir, Death at Midnight: The Confession of an Executioner, and at many public appearances, Donald Cabana spoke personally of the toll that every execution had on him and his family. He often said, “There is a part of the warden that dies with his prisoner” during an execution. He was an early voice challenging the unfairness of society imposing on literally a nameless and faceless public servants the weight and brunt of a collective desire for this uniquely severe punishment. He spoke candidly of the price that executions exacted on his health and the health of others.
His candor, I think encouraged others, to speak about the oppressive nature of having to weigh the need to pay your mortgage and put your kids through school against the terrible job requirement of going to work some evenings to kill another human being. Regardless of the crime for which the condemned were sentenced to die, Donald Cabana would tell us unapologetically it hurt. He and others took on this grave responsibility without benefit of mental health services or public understanding of the psychological impact of their job. Stories of prison workers who turn to substance abuse and even suicide because of this burden persist in the corrections field.
Fortunately, there is a growing cadre of wardens and former executioners who speak tirelessly and work diligently for an end to capital punishment. Their testimony is a critical component of the debate.
Today, when I think about Donald Cabana and his powerful testimony against the death penalty and his own brokenness as a result, I am reminded of the story of the cracked pot.
Donald Cabana’s grace in sharing the way in which he was harmed by the death penalty allowed the Light to shine through his cracks. For that we are most grateful and indebted to him.
We pledge that we will follow that light and finish this work.