If given the choice: would you prefer execution or life in prison for yourself?

Two weeks ago Illinois' longest-serving jail inmate died.  He was 83 years old.  He spent 66 years in prison after confessing to and being convicted of three murders at the age of 17.  

Story here:  Huffington Post and very interesting (and lengthy) case details here:  Wikipedia.  

For most of my adult life I've been against the death penalty and I still am.  I truly believe the greatest punishment we can administer is keeping a criminal locked up for life in a cell instead of putting them to death.  Luckily I've never been in a situation where a family member or close friend has unwillingly died at the hands of a murderer.  But I think I can say with absolute certainty that I would at least feel a bit of judicial and personal satisfaction knowing that the murderer was locked up in a cell and paying for their crime.  I don't think I'd have the same feelings of satisfaction if the murderer was put to death.  To me, the death penalty is the easy way out.  It's skipping the punishment period altogether.

This story really got me thinking.  If I were the convicted criminal, would I prefer spending the rest of my existence in prison living a life of meager quality or would I prefer to be put to death and out of my misery.  As a non-theist, knowing that we have only one life to live, the thought of not having any quality to that life is quite unsettling to me.  I think I'd rather be dead.  On the other hand, we are a very adaptable species and we seem to have a knack for making the best out of horrible situations.  The inmate mentioned in the above story was able to accomplish quite a lot during his life in prison.  From Wikipedia:

He learned several trades, including electronics and television and radio repair; and at one point he had his own repair shop. Before a college education was available to prison inmates, Heirens on February 6, 1972, became the first prisoner in Illinois history to earn a four year college degree, receiving a Bachelor of Arts (BA) degree later earning 250 course credits by funding the cost of correspondence courses with 20 different universities from his savings. Passing courses as varied as languages, analytical geometry, data processing and tailoring, he was forbidden by authorities to take courses in physics, chemistry or celestial navigation. He managed the garment factory at Stateville for five years, overseeing 350 inmates and after transfer to Vienna he set up their entire educational program. He aided other prisoners' educational progress by helping them earn their General Educational Development (GED) diplomas and becoming a "jailhouse lawyer" of sorts, helping them with their appeals.

The overall quality of his life doesn't sound so horribly bad after all.  But of course all this depends on whether or not opportunities are even made available to inmates in the first place or if an inmate possesses the willpower to voluntarily improve their situation.  What if none of those opportunities were available and you were the inmate?  What if you given just one hour a day to spend outside your cell in the "yard" or to shower?  What if educational opportunities were not available?  What if you were in solitary confinement?  Would you want to live or die? 

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Replies to This Discussion

"The overall quality of his life doesn't sound so horribly bad after all."

In some ways he gave back more to society than some who never see the inside of a prison, but this wasn't given to him, he chose to live the life he had, in the best way he could.

"But of course all this depends on whether or not opportunities are even made available to inmates in the first place or if an inmate possesses the willpower to voluntarily improve their situation.  What if none of those opportunities were available andyou were the inmate?  What if you given just one hour a day to spend outside your cell in the "yard" or to shower?  What if educational opportunities were not available?  What if you were in solitary confinement?  Would you want to live or die? "

No books, no musical instruments, no human contact?

Simple, I'd choose death, because this isn't even remotely …living.

I happen to be in the unique position of having been in several prisons in the State of Illinois, as an attorney representing incarcerated clients. Menard, Stateville, Graham, Shawnee (formerly the Vienna prison in the above post), Big Muddy (where sex offenders of every stripe from rapists to pedophiles are housed together), Tamms (the bottom of the barrel hell hole where men go insane from the islation), and Marion Federal Prison when it replaced Alcatraz as the maximum security prison in the US. Among Marion's notables were John Gotti, Manuel Noriega, Edwin Wilson (international arms trafficker to the late Muamar Gaddafi), and Christopher Boyce and Daulton Lee (Falcon and the Snowman).

The overall quality of his life doesn't sound so horribly bad after all. Really!? Try avoiding gang rape, beatings, shanks in your back, and a fight with home made knives made out of disposable razors, all over an under cooked biscuit or an over cooked greasy friend chicken leg, as a way of daily life. I'm not surprised the inmates refer to their surroundings as "Gladiator School." As a general proposition, I too, am opposed to the death penalty. However, life without parole is the exact same thing. It just takes a longer time to carry it out.

"I happen to be in the unique position of having been in several prisons in the State of Illinois, as an attorney representing incarcerated clients."

My prisoner experience is all "second hand".

My father worked in a prison as a deputy warden/parol counsellor in Canada in the '50s. During this time period he was also part of the very first Osmond/Hoffer clinical trials for LSD, when they established a methodological baseline for research into schizophrenia.

All the original volunteer subjects were well educated, intelligent and emotionally stable professionals with some connection to psychology, social sciences or counseling (yes, they had at least one member of the clergy!). 

During this experience, may father had somewhat of an epiphany and decided that the  the prison business, …was too brutal for him to be a part of. He quit, and joined the John Howard Society, where he worked for a few years helping paroled convicts adjust to life outside prison. He used to bring them home when they were first released, I guess to show them that he believed they could re-integrate. I heard many stories about this growing up.

One think I've learned in life is that you never know what you can adapt to until yo have to.  I imagine Pat is right.  Even so most prisoners could figure out a way to suicide if they really wanted to.  I vacillate on the death penalty.  Most of the time I think that executing people dehumanizes the rest of us, so I am against it.  Sometimes I think it's wasteful to devote resources to maintain the lives of the most heinous people.  But mostly I think that even if they don't deserve to live, the rest of us don't deserve to live in a society that kills people.  So keep them alive, clean, and not tortured.

I am 100% against capital punishment because it is barbaric. Cruel and unusual, eye for an eye bs.  (if anyone hurt my kids I might reconsider.) 

I did read a sci fi novel once about a ut/dystopia where after a 2nd offense you just "disappeared." It was cheap and made for a fairly safe environment. But we're way too messy a species for anything that cut and dry.  


Some say the way we do capital punishment often costs more than lwop. 

 

Pat paints a grim picture but we are so adaptable. I have a prison pen pal who has been in 24 years and he has a life such as it is. He plays music and reads. But he also recently had a bad "lock down." He lives for parole so obviously life w/o parole would be dreadful. But we do only have this one, so I'd want it anyway.  Easy to say from here.

 

Solitary is another story. Life in solitary w/o books would indeed probably be a show stopper.

Other arguments are, how many innocent people do we execute, and are some people more likely to be executed for who they are, rather than what they did.  The evidence that I have seen is that, once executed, it's very rare to try to exonerate a prisoner, so we never get to know.  But some cases are flimsy.  The other evidence is that there is racial discrimination in distribution of death penalty, just as there is racism in imprisonment.

Added to links on group front page.  thanks.

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