Meredith Alexander, News Service (650) 725-0224; e-mail firstname.lastname@example.org
Stanford sophomore conducts pioneering research on prison staff who work with executions, presents findings to the American Psychiatric Association
Michael Osofsky got a little carried away with his homework in high school. That was when he began a research project on a grim topic the lives of inmates at the Louisiana State Penitentiary at Angola, a maximum-security prison.
He remembers the day he walked into the prison and met two boys around his age, 16 and 18, who had just been given life sentences for murder.
"Sitting across the table from me was a kid my age, who'd never have the kinds of opportunities I'd have," he recalls thinking. The experience at Angola proved a turning point for Osofsky, a New Orleans native who is now a sophomore studying psychology at Stanford. He developed a "fascination," as he calls it, for the prison and its inmates particularly those on Death Row as well as the workers assigned to watch over them.
This abiding interest has now borne fruit: Osofsky has been invited to present his research on Angola's Death Row workers at the 154th Annual Meeting of the American Psychiatric Association (APA) in New Orleans. He will read from his paper, "Along the Death Trail: Inside the Mind of an Execution Team," at a highlighted forum on May 7. The forum is being presided over by Osofsky's father, Dr. Howard Osofsky, the chairman of the psychiatry department at Louisiana State University Health Sciences Center, who collaborated with his son on the project.
With the execution of Timothy McVeigh just days away, the use of capital punishment is a particularly hot topic. But instead of arguing about whether death is an appropriate penalty, Osofsky took an innovative approach. He won the trust of prison officials by looking at the execution workers' jobs impartially and even with compassion. Interviewing 50 Death Row workers, he sought an inner picture of their emotions and shook up the psychology establishment in the process.
It is extremely unusual, perhaps unprecedented, for an undergraduate to be invited to participate in a forum at the APA meeting. His role as a panelist means he was "chosen for expertise and leadership in the field," said Cecilia Obejero, a public affairs officer at the Washington, D.C.-based APA.
Osofsky's faculty adviser, psychology Professor Philip Zimbardo, agrees that his work has unusual power. "The fact that his first research may be published in Psychology Today magazine and will be a featured presentation at APA is unheard of, a joint never-before phenomenon," Zimbardo said. "It would be extraordinary for a graduate student." (Osofsky's research is in part inspired by Zimbardo's famous 1971 Stanford Prison Experiment, where students played the roles of inmates and guards.)
Osofsky already has been recognized by Stanford: Last month he received the Deans' Award for Academic Achievement for his scholarly accomplishments in psychology.
The paper he will present at the APA meeting draws on the research Osofsky conducted last summer, just after his freshman year, when he returned to Angola. This time he had a specific mission: to uncover the attitudes and emotions of the men and women who guard, treat and eventually kill the condemned.
He interviewed not just those associated with the execution chamber, but a variety of employees who have contact with Death Row inmates. "It is the first study of all the people associated with an execution," Zimbardo pointed out.
Osofsky said he believes his research is more objective about the death penalty and more compassionate toward those who work with it than that of previous scholars.
Most people who studied this topic leaned for or against the death penalty, which had a tendency to skew their results, he said. "I'm cautiously wavering whether I'm for or against the death penalty," Osofsky said. "For impartial or quality research, this is the best position to be in."
And unlike researchers who found that prison workers became "dehumanized" by their role in executions, Osofsky found that "there's a heightened sense of humanization" among these soul-searching workers.
"They do consider questions about religion, death, the inmate's family and their views on the death penalty," Osofsky said.
One Death Row worker made it clear: "If anybody says executions don't impact themselves, there's something wrong with them." Some get tears in their eyes when speaking of inmates, including one who said, "They're human beings to me." Another said if he thought executions violated his religious beliefs, he would not carry on. Some do break down or quit their jobs.
Those who stay usually try to treat their charges as normal people, according to Osofsky. A concrete example: When preparing the inmate's arm for lethal injection, emergency medical technicians wipe it with alcohol, a standard measure to prevent infection. Yet they know very well that there will be no infection for this patient, who will leave the chamber dead.
Osofsky also shows that the workers on Death Row form a sort of family some are literally related; others are children of prison workers. A community of employees even shares huge meals after executions.
Like the work on Death Row, Osofsky acknowledges that his project is a family affair. "My father's been instrumental in guiding me," he said. Howard Osofsky helped his son get to know Warden Burl Cain, the prison manager who allowed them to gain access to the inner workings of Angola.
Michael Osofsky relishes the fact that by working closely with his father who was present as he interviewed prison employees the two became closer. "It's unique, studying something as harsh as the death penalty but also being able to bond with my father," he explained.
Osofsky's mother is a psychologist, and his brother training to be a lawyer is planning to participate in an Angola study this coming summer.
But Osofsky's own drive is obvious. His passion for prisons is motivating him to pursue more in-depth studies of those who live and work at Angola this summer.
Most striking, he will try to understand a death sentence from the inside by imitating the motions of a condemned prisoner. He plans to spend hours in a Death Row cell and later will submit to being strapped down in the execution chamber.
This sophomore does not want to spend all his time in prison, however. Osofsky is quick to point out another passion: His love for Stanford. "It's a place where every resource and opportunity is at my fingertips," he said. Quite a world away, of course, from the gates and bars of Angola.
By Meredith Alexander