Louisiana Prison Warden Burl Cain believes it is only for God to say when a person’s number is up; yet Cain presides over executions. The New York Times says people like Cain “often adjust their moral judgments in a process some psychologists call moral disengagement, or moral distancing.” For the first time, researchers are testing disengagement techniques among those who take part in executions.
Psychologists at Stanford University have shown that prison staff members who work on execution teams exhibit high levels of moral disengagement; the closer they are to the killing, the higher their level of disengagement goes. In the late 1990’s, Michael Osofsky, as a teenage student in New Orleans, began interviewing prison guards at the penitentiary in nearby Angola. By the time he graduated from Stanford in 2003, he had conducted in-depth interviews with 246 prison workers in three states. Working with Warden Cain and others, Osofsky administered a moral disengagement scale to the execution team members and the guards not on the team.