Former Head Of Oregon Prison Questions His Responsibility To The Death Penalty

Dec 3, 2016


What happens when the thing you’re called to do goes against everything you believe in? And what if a life hangs in the balance?

Frank Thompson is no stranger to fighting for his beliefs. He grew up in Arkansas at the height of the civil rights movement, living just blocks away from the Little Rock Nine, who helped integrate Little Rock Central High School. Thompson, himself, fought as a student to integrate the University of Arkansas. These experiences shaped him to his very core.

“The murder of Emmett Till and the murder of civil rights workers were very vivid in my mind and in my psyche," says Thompson. "And the communities I associated with, or lived in, roundly felt that these were such heinous crimes. That decent citizens are being killed for their pursuit of life, liberty, and happiness in this country. And that the perpetrators, if they were convicted and got capitol punishment, it would be a just sanction.”

 

Frank Thompson was Superintendent of the Oregon State Penitentiary from 1994 to 1998.
Credit COURTESY OF FRANK THOMPSON

Even as Thompson’s activism work took a back seat to a career in law enforcement, he continued to accept the death penalty as a fair policy. As he began working in corrections, it became a regular part of the job. A decision so few of us have to grapple with was just the status quo.

However, in 1994, Thompson became superintendent of the Oregon State Penitentiary and he was tasked with overseeing the state's first execution in 32 years. This heavy responsibility weighed on Thompson and made him question his loyalty to this controversial public policy.

 

Sound Effect's Jennifer Wing talks with Thompson about what it was like to carry out an action that went against his beliefs.