One bonobo's view of the world...and stuff.

Tuesday, September 05, 2006

String 'em...along!

The attempted suicide in prison by Ian Huntley and the previous successful suicide by Harold Shipman raise some interesting ethical/penal posers, including-but-not-limited-to:

  1. I presume there will be many who will shout 'Let the bastard die!' I admit I haven't done the full research, but I imagine there will be a high correspondence between these and those who would have wished him to have been hanged rather than imprisoned. Interesting. Presumably capital punishment is favoured because it is the worst imaginable punishment. And yet Huntley seems to have preferred death to imprisonment. Would the pro-hangers be happy for him to be slipped a couple of pills and allowed to choose the time of his death?
  2. Some in the anti-psychiatry movement, such as Thomas Szasz (imagine the triple word score!) argue for 'the right to death' - i.e., even in cases of mental illness (whose existence they deny), individuals have the right to suicide. (Contrast this with Article 3 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights). Obviously we already deny some rights to prisoners - but is it acceptable to deny this right? (If, indeed, it is a right)
  3. Still on psychiatry/anti-psychiatry. Obviously there are cases where an individual chooses suicide, arguable as a rational alternative to imprisonment. See this case. Or think of Butch and Sundance. But how can we distinguish this from a suicidal urge brought about from clinical depression which results from life in prison? Is it right to err on the side of caution and assume that prisoners will change their mind, given proper treatment? Of course - treatment is unlikely to be reliable and, given the circumstances, be palliative at best. But then the same applies to many depressed people living in desparate life situations. Should we just hand them the pills?
  4. Is life imprisonment fundamentally a cruel and inhumane punishment? In the case of US Supermax prisons, I'd say 'Yes'. They seem designed to induce suicidal depression*. Of course, the US has notoriously grim prisons by worldwide standards. I read a quote a while back to the effect that, to all appearances, male rape is an officially sanctioned part of the American penal system. Surely people are sent to prison as punishment, not for punishment? a civilised society (there's a massive assumption!), what level of comfort are we happy with for convicted criminals?

Tricky blighters, ethics. I'm not sure there are ever any clear-cut answers.

*But of course attempted suicides at Guantanamo are sneaky attacks.


azahar said...

Yeah, let the bastard die already. And no, I don't condone capital punishment. But if they want to do the job themselves and save the state thousands a year in prison maintenance - why not?

Edward the Bonobo said...

Well, have a point. I wouldn't shed any tears.

However...say it was someone who was feeling suicidal after having been wrongfully imprisoned - think the Guildford 4, The Birmingham 5, The McGuire 7, The Bridgewater 3...or practically everyone convicted by the West Midlands Serious Crimes Squad during the 1970's.

How do you distinguish between them and a Huntley?

As for saving money...aren't we willing we to pay for the infrastructure of civilisation?

Edward the Bonobo said...

Birmingham 5?? Typo. Add 1.

Woodpigeon said...

I suppose it gets to what we want out of a criminal justice system.

Do we want to exact revenge on them? So, the worse and more degrading punishment the better, and hey, long may it last. You can't torture dead bodies, so keep 'em alive for as long as possible.

Do we want to keep our society from them? We then could either execute them in the interest of public safety or build higher walls. What happens within those walls is their business, so long as they're not out here with us.

Do we want them to reform? Then, the whole criminal justice system becomes some sort of re-education system, and there are plenty of people who would argue that there are some types of criminals who can never be reformed. It's a sort of keep them inside until they are ready to come out sort of idea.

Hmm - I've a suspicion that deep down a lot of people would look at the first option as being their preferred one. Maybe we're conditioned to think that way.

azahar said...

People who have been wrongly accused and imprisoned will almost surely feel very depressed at times, and perhaps to the point of attempting suicide - these people should be helped as much as possible (imho).

Hell, even someone stuck in prison for six months for burglary might end up equally depressed and suicidal - this person should also be helped.

Meanwhile, the Ian Huntleys and Charles Mansons would be doing the world a favour by ending their sorry lives by their own hand. The good old Roman justice system ... give them some nice sharp razors and a hot bath and leave them to it.

These scum are not ever going to be 'rehabilitated' and all they are doing is spending tax payer's money by keeping them fed and housed for 50 years.

Edward the Bonobo said...


I agree with you - some people are un-reformable. They need to be locked away for the safety of society. It is reasonable that we should enact a degree of revenge upon them.

However - I remain opposed to capital punishment. This is on several grounds. Yes, the possibility of wrongful execution is one: from my count above that would make 20 - and I could have added more. But more fundamentally I think it demeans and brutalises our civilisation if we pay someone to slip a noose around someone's neck. And I could go on.

So...what about the option - which I heard scandalously proposed by the editor of The Prisons Handbook yesterday, of offering voluntary euthanasia to prisoners. This would clearly amount to capital punishment:

Why don't you do the decent thing and kill yourself?
We'll make your life hell until you kill yourself
Depressed are we? Here's a big fistful of pills. (And let's not worry about whether you're depressed because you've been wrongly accused.)

I take the position that the parameters of our civilisation are defined by the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, and that we can allow no qualification. No civlised country on earth allows capital punishment. We must judge ourselves on the way we treat our scum, no matter how much it pains us to treat them well.

David McLaughlin said...

I'm not happy with the term "punishment", because I don't know what it means. I think it's some sort of conflation of "retribution" and "deterrent", but I'm not sure. I'm pretty sure whoever came up with the bright idea of printing "BETTER LUCK NEXT TIME" on the front page of this morning's Currant Bun was thinking in terms of retribution (albeit in fewer syllables).

I'm sure I'd rather be dead than banged up for the rest of my natural span. But slavering Sun-writers want Huntley to get the merciful release that he himself wants.

David McLaughlin said...
This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.
David McLaughlin said...

Last week you said:

Isn't this one of those examples of casuistry - the Jesuitical art of arguing that black is white? If it's not true, then all of Catholic doctrine is untrue, therefore it must be true because everyone has to go on believing.

This struck a chord with me, and now that you've mentioned the Birmingham Six, I ought to draw people's attention to what Lord Denning had to say when denying them their appeal:

If the six men win, it will mean that the police were guilty of violence and threats, that the confessions were involuntary and were improperly admitted in evidence and that the convictions were erroneous. That would mean that the home secretary would either have to recommend that they be pardoned or he would have to remit the case to the court of appeal. That is such an appalling vista that every sensible person in the land would say: It cannot be right that these actions should continue. - quoted in The Grauniad

Now if any of you out there hasn't already read those words (not you Edward, I'm sure you have), I suggest you go back, reread them, and pause to let the full horror sink in.

Denning went on to tell The Spectator:

"Hanging ought to be retained for murder most foul. We shouldn't have all these campaigns to get the Birmingham Six released if they had been hanged, they would have been forgotten and the whole community would have been satisfied."

Beggars belief, doesn't it? But it didn't stop there. Blunkett then had the audacity to bill them for ‘food and lodgings’ for the time spent inside.