You can judge a society by how well it treats its prisoners

“You can judge a society by how well it treats its prisoners”.

Fyodor Dostoevsky

The last executions in the UK took place in 1964, with capital punishment for murder being abolished in 1969 (1973 in NI)  subsequently it was abolished in all circumstances in 1998. Since 2004 the UK has been prohibited from restoring capital punishment as long as it is party to the European Convention on Human Rights. Despite this, recent opinion polls suggest that the majority of the British population remain in favour of capital punishment.

In stark contrast, the death penalty in a majority of US states is flourishing, as of January 1st 2012 there were 3189 people on death row.  Matthew B. Robinson, PhD Professor of Government & Justice Studies of the Appalachian State University offers an explanation as to why:

  • History & Culture: The US has a long history & culture of violence, individualism and revenge, this fits well with capital punishment
  • Capital punishment in the United States persists mostly for historical, political, ideological, religious, economical, and social reasons
  • It is politically popular to support death; in all but a few states it is virtual political suicide to oppose it.
  • Politicians play to law & order / death penalty card very effectively (politics of fear).
  • Crime and (and now terrorism) has replaced communism as the enemy
  • Capital punishment is still used to intimidate and repress, it used to win elections
  • Vengeance, Retribution and Deterrence.
  • Public Support, the population has endorsed it. In the UK & Europe abolition was pursued and established by higher authorities regardless of popular general public support.
  • The Marshall hypothesis; people do not understand the reality of the death penalty (and politicians work to keep them in ignorance)
  • The US death penalty is “held in place emotionally not rationally.”

It may be a prerequisite that (most of) those in the US who desire a political career endorse the death penalty. As Robinson points out; it is political suicide to not support it. Inevitably this ensures that anyone who openly opposes capital punishment will (probably) never get elected.

The epitome of a politician thriving in this curious environment is Rick Perry, the Governor of Texas. Perry is responsible for authorising 234 executions (ensuring audience applause at the GOP debate), considerably more than his predecessor and closest competitor, George W. Bush (who earned the nickname “Texecutioner”) for playing his part in 152 Texas executions. Perry stated that “If you don’t support the death penalty…don’t come to Texas.” His enthusiasm ensured that in 2002 Perry vetoed a bill which would have prevented the death penalty being handed to mentally retarded inmates.

The execution of Cameron Todd Willingham in 2004 was a gross miscarriage of justice. The forensic evidence which ensured that Willingham was sent to the death chamber has now been described by accredited experts as ‘junk science‘. Despite the desperate last-minute appeals and detailed reports completely discrediting the forensic evidence against Willinham, Rick Perry declined to  intervene. In a later, post execution response to allegations that he allowed the execution of an innocent man, Perry stated that Willinham “was a wife beater.” & “Monster”.

In August 2009 Chicago Tribune concluded that : “Over the past five years, the Willingham case has been reviewed by nine of the nation’s top fire scientists—first for the Tribune, then for the Innocence Project, and now for the commission. All concluded that the original investigators relied on outdated theories and folklore to justify the determination of arson”.

Despite the evidence proving that Cameron Todd Willingham was innocent of arson and the murder of his children, Rick Perry will never be able to recognise it, nor accept that Willingham was innocent. Any acknowledgement from Perry that the entire Texas judicial system failed to prevent the execution of an innocent man will irreparably damage the illusion that the system is just, fair, safe and infallible. The political career of Rick Perry depends on maintaining the fallacy, he has no choice but to continue to ignore the truth.


This entry was posted in capital punishment, crime, Crime & Justice, death penalty, Justice, prison and tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

3 Responses to You can judge a society by how well it treats its prisoners

  1. kartikasays says:

    Reblogged this on kartikasays and commented:
    Excellent work and a very informative piece of writing!

  2. B Cooper says:

    quoting a famous politician “at this point what does it matter anyways”

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