For years, I’ve been a staunch opponent of the death penalty. To me it seems both barbaric and unjust. In a fallible and inequitable criminal justice system, one can never be sure that the death penalty is applied evenly and without bias. And with the spate of false convictions that have been uncovered in the past few decades, it’s clear that even completely innocent people are sentenced to death.
So, I was more than a bit surprised when I read this article from the BBC News: hundreds of Italian prisoners who are serving life sentences are actually requesting that the death penalty be reinstated (it’s been banned since after World War II.)
The letter they sent to President Napolitano came from a convicted mobster, Carmelo Musumeci, a 52-year-old who has been in prison for 17 years.
It was co-signed by 310 of his fellow lifers.
Musumeci said he was tired of dying a little bit every day.
We want to die just once, he said, and “we are asking for our life sentence to be changed to a death sentence”.
I’ve always thought about death penalty as the most cruel and unjust form of punishment, but how much less cruel is life imprisonment, really? Unlike a death sentence, it’s reversible; if someone is found to have been wrongly convicted, they can be released; if they appeal and evidence is unearthed that proves them guilty of only a lesser crime, their sentence can be shortened. But the prospect of living the rest of one’s life behind bars is a horrifying one indeed, as evidenced by these prisoners’ plea for death.
Being a prison abolitionist, I’m looking forward to a time when prisons fade into obsolescence and are no longer how society deals with its problems. However, that’s probably a long way off. So in the meantime, the questions I’m pondering are these – should prisoners be allowed to request the death penalty instead of a life sentence? Should that be allowed even if the death penalty is abolished as an involuntarily imposed sentence? Does this amount to something akin to voluntary euthanasia (physician-assisted suicide), which I do not oppose? Is this a devaluation of the lives of prisoners? That last question sounds eerily like something a “sanctity of life” anti-choicer might say, but I’m coming from a different angle. People in prison are already so undervalued, even when they’re released; does something like this only reinforce that devaluation – saying that life in prison is worse than no life at all? And finally, does anyone but prisoners actually serving life sentences have the right or even the ability to answer any of these questions?