If you committed or were uncontestably framed for murder or rape, would you rather be sentenced to a maximum security jail for the rest of your life, or painlessly put to sleep by poisonous injections?
The answer to this question – I find – is usually quite revealing of the human personality. I myself would likely plump for the second option and this is for reasons directly tethered to my political and philosophical worldview.
Life is (as the optimists say) the greatest luxury and there is something sacred about the opportunities afforded by it. But almost all of the benefits of living are contingent on personal freedom, and without it, the value of life collapses. Death, in and of itself, is not anything to fear. The reason we fear it is because we would rather carry on enjoying the fruits of liberty.
Because of these considerations, the debate around the death penalty has always seemed to me rather warped. The greatest cruelty available to the state is not execution, but surely incarceration with no hope of parole. I’m far from alone in this sentiment.
The other day I watched a BBC documentary on the Russian prison system (often thought of as the world’s worst). In that film, a prisoner was interviewed about the Putin regime’s commutation of sentences from death to life imprisonment. The prisoner noted that it was common for inmates on death row to hang themselves upon receiving the news that they were to serve life instead.
That’s not surprising. In Russia, murderers (and other serious offenders) are confined to their cell for 23 hours of the day. During the day time, they are forbidden to lie down on their beds and must instead sit on hard chairs or stroll up and down their undecorated 7 or 8 ft cell without the consolations of television or even literature. They have no contact with other prisoners except at mealtimes and they are monitored 24/7 by extensive cctv. Imagine living like that for the rest of your natural life.
We could learn from Russia here in the West. The lobbies of justice currently shouting for the death penalty should instead focus on supporting harsher and more dreadful prison environments for rapists and murderers; environments so hideous that even death would seem a sweet release.