Execution Dignity

A state-sponsored execution is filled with ritual, from the agonizing countdown to the grim hour to the prisoner’s last meal. That final repast is such a curious display of compassion under the circumstances. Don’t let the man die hungry, as if that would be an indication of a truly uncivilized electorate. Or is the last meal a grudging willingness to let the convicted man have the tiniest bit of control over how he will exit this world? …

But the prisoner is allowed no control over what he will be wearing. He cannot add any final footnote — no matter how microscopically minor — about how history will remember him. … He cannot choose to die in a sober suit … [or] wear some disconcertingly blase garb that would allow him to mock the proceedings. …

Prison uniforms have always existed to rob a convict of his individuality, his power and all but the thinnest shred of dignity. … As a culture, we need to know that the death row inmate died with his dignity intact — at least a bit of it. Observers felt compelled to note whether Muhammad showed any emotions. … As a society, dignity is inextricably linked to appearance. … We needed to know that while he was robbed of control, individuality and the ability to torment, he was not fully stripped of his self-respect. He was not forced to perish in some clownish costume.

More here.   Hmm, interesting.  We allow executed folks the dingy dignity of choosing a last meal, last words, and perhaps execution method, and we choose for them clothes, background sounds, and ambiance that aren’t too humiliating or painful.  But we will not allow them a choice of clothes or musical accompaniment.  Or a fan club nearby.

We want to assert our higher status, but as with animals, we do not want to seem to enjoy their pain.  This is of course not about the prisoner at all (who we are killing); it is about us signaling our good features to observers.  We do this not just in executions, but more broadly in our entire system of criminal law, and at great expense.  Let me explain.

The whole point of punishing criminals is to discourage would-be criminals from doing crimes.  We have many reasons to want to adjust the size of a punishment to fit the crime, but for any given punishment size the whole point is to harm the criminal by that amount – there is simply no way to be “kind” about imposing a given degree of harm, at least from the punished person’s point of view.  The only way to be kind, and not “cruel,” would be to harm them less.

To harm criminals by a given amount, we have a wide choice of punishment methods.  We can fine, dispossess, humiliate, torture, mutilate, enslave, imprison, exile, or kill.  We can forbid them to go particular places, see particular people, or do particular things.  The main considerations in choosing a punishment are: degree of harm, cost to impose, protect from future crimes, rehabilitation, and signaling our “civility.”

Now comparing these various options, the striking thing is that we most often choose prison, which is usually the most expensive way to create any given level of harm.  No one believes prison rehabilitates, and we can prevent future crime just fine via exile, death, enslavement, or ankle monitors.  But we’ve told ourselves that uncivilized people enjoy non-prison punishments too much, so we must signal our civility by harming criminals via prison.  And not just any prisons mind you, but we think the only civil prisons are very expensive ones like we have, not those cheap dingy prisons you find in the third world.  (Expensive prisons where most folks think rape is common, but never mind that.)

Of course poor nations can’t afford to punish via expensive prisons like ours – one source says we pay $22K/yr per prisoner.   So our standards ensure poor nations simply cannot enter the realm of “civilized” nations, entitling us to treat those nations as uncivilized in other ways, such as by invading them as needed.  I see little reason to believe that our use of prisons to punish criminals shows us to be more “civilized” in any other way than being more rich.  But clearly most rich folks have found it in their interest to think otherwise.

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  • Robin, remember your Impro from Keith Johnstone:

    “Tragedy also works on the [status] see-saw principle: its subject is the ousting of a high-status animal from the pack. Super-intelligent wolves might have invented this form of theatre, and the lupine Oedipus would play high status at all times. Even when he was being led into the wilderness he wouldn’t whine, and he’d keep his tail up. If he crumbled into low-status posture and voice, the audience wouldn’t get the necessary catharsis. The effect wouldn’t be tragic, but pathetic. Even criminals about to be executed were supposed to make a “good end”, i.e. to play high status….”

    And this:

    “Tragedy is obviously related to sacrifice. Two things strike me about reports of sacrifices: one is that the crowd gets more and more tense, and then are relaxed and happy at the moment of death; the other is that the victim is raised in status before being sacrificed. The best goat is chosen, and it’s groomed, and magnificently decorated. A human sacrifice might be pampered for months, and then dressed in fine clothes, and rehearsed in his role at the centre of the great ceremony….A sacrifice has to be endowed with high status or the magic doesn’t work.”

  • botogol

    You are forgetting that prisons ALSO exist not as punishment, but simply to confine persistent criminals away somewhere, so that they can’t offend again. For society’s self-protection, in other words.

  • TGGP

    Have you heard of Mark Kleiman’s book “When Brute Force Fails”? He argues for less punishment. Because of bounded rationality, we get a lot more bang for buck if punishment is more certain & immediate, even if less severe. More severe punishments also tend to invoke more due process, so by reducing severity we can move toward more swiftness & certainty. He also endorses ankle bracelets.

    • It seems, then, the best punishment system would be:

      -Quick capture and trial (allow all evidence that can be gathered and presented within 24 hours)

      -Lower standard of guilt than present

      -Punishment by impermanent infliction of pain (like tasing them) in proportion to severity

      This seems like it would make everyone better off: it’s less expensive for trial and punishment, the convict loses less time and earning potential, and if you make a mistake, you always leave open the possibility of compensating the convict for their having been tortured.

      But still, something strikes everyone about it as wrong.

  • Mike, yes relevant quotes.

    botogol, I did talk about preventing future crime.

    TGGP, more certain punishment requires more enforcement costs, but still might be worth it. But that doesn’t address the type of punishment issue.

    • botogol

      robin – not really, you said

      The whole point of punishing criminals is to discourage would-be criminals from doing crimes.

      sure, that’s a part of it – but the main point of it, really, I reckon, is preventing habitual criminals from re-offending for a number of years

  • magfrump

    Reducing severity leads to reducing due process leads to more people being wrongfully convicted. We certainly have a large loss of utility from people being in jail (loss of their utility as people, loss of economic utility from their work, loss of money from keeping the jail running), so reducing jail time is good. Wrongfully slapping ankle bracelets on people and harassing them also reduces utility, but probably by much less than jail.

    On the other hand, living in California, I’d have to say that anything is better than the three strikes law, where you can go to jail for life for stealing a pizza (okay, three pizzas).

    Like the point about civilized/uncivilized nations.

    • On the other hand, living in California, I’d have to say that anything is better than the three strikes law, where you can go to jail for life for stealing a pizza (okay, three pizzas).

      Not to defend the criminal just system as it stands, but, it would be at least as accurate to characterize this law as, “you can go to jail for like for three times failing to learn your less that what you have done is a felony and you’re not good at evading detection”.

      • Yikes, not competent today. That should be,

        “you can go to jail for life for three times failing to learn your lesson …”

  • Is it possible a good deed to an enemy before he is harmed is a hedge against a reversal, or reprisal from your enemy’s allies? Feeding a prisoner about to be executed could mean you are showing you care about him, but feel you have to kill him anyway for reasons other than immediate personal satisfaction.

    I was told by a psychologist that providing food for someone is a way of showing that you care. People who are politically liberal, it seems to me, tend to be interested in organic food and obsessing about food quality, and also are interested in demonstrating they care more than conservatives, who seem less interested in both food and showing empathy.

  • Robert Koslover

    Always remember, “Those who are kind to the cruel, in the end will be cruel to the kind.” So debate all you want about what are, or are not, the best punishments. But whatever you decide, make sure you keep the violent felons locked up and away from law-abiding society for a long, long, time. Thank you.

  • William H. Stoddard

    You know, that argument is all very well, but at the same time, prison rape is generally accepted as existing, widely mythologized (perhaps beyond its actual extent, for all I know), and often eagerly anticipated by people resentful of various crimes. And yet at the same time it is not generally accepted as “cruel and unusual punishment,” as it would be declared in an instant by the Supreme Court if any court had the naked honesty to say “we sentence you to be forcibly sodomized for your crimes” (with the exception of the proprietors of Agoraphilia, http://agoraphilia.blogspot.com/ , whose lucid thinking I commend). So I think your theory needs to be expanded to account simultaneously for our signaling that we are decent and humane in our treatment of prisoners, and yet that we are harshly punitive and criminals have every reason to fear prison . . . both at the same time.

  • Billb

    But we will not allow them a choice of clothes, musical accompaniment, or execution method.

    The man executed in VA choose his execution method.

  • DWC

    The last meal is just that. It is factually the last. Because it is known to all to be the last, it becomes distinct. While distinction tends to produce ritual, all of the formal activities that precede such a death are part of the larger legal practice. The last meal of course has special significance to Christians. In a Christian society, redemption is the key attribute of our behavior. We provide a stable coherent process to implement a sobering capacity to allow for redemption of the condemned’s soul.

    Being put to death in public is undignified. There is no dignified way to kill a person. There is only mercy in the speed at which death comes.

    Our obligation to the condemned is to be professional about the process. The quickest and surest implementation of dying.

    • Jeffrey Soreff

      >There is only mercy in the speed at which death comes.

      If the execution methods were actually designed with that in
      mind they would drop a large rock on the prisoner’s head
      or blow them up. As nearly as I can tell, most of the changes
      in execution methods have been to make it appear more
      clinical, perhaps because legislators are squeamish?

      • James K

        Were I to be executed I would go for a Chinese style execution. A rifle bullet to the back of the head has to be about the greatest chance of swift death that you can get. But while its clean for the victim, its messy for everyone else so craven legislators try to make it medical, like they were putting down a dog.

  • mccoyn

    Execution is the ultimate penalty we can apply to a single person. Therefore, if a person is convinced that a crime is worth the death penalty, there is nothing preventing that person from committing further crimes. We can not punish him more than what he has already accepted.

    To avoid that situation, we must hold some last ultimate punishment in reserve. Death with an empty stomach.

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  • Douglas Knight

    This attributes too much coherence to what “we” think. Prison rape is a good example of that. Some people try to do as this post claims and project to the world a civilized image with no rape; but others, including police and judges, brag about it. I think William H. Stoddard, above, is wrong that the same people try to signal an incoherent combination; instead different people signal different things. Similarly, people disagree on the purpose of the criminal justice system. Some want deterrance, others punishment.

  • J

    “The whole point of punishing criminals is to discourage would-be criminals from doing crimes”

    If you regard incarceration as punishment (you appear to), it also has the purpose of separating criminals from the public. Indeed, I think that is a far more important function than punishment. That said, I do wonder if, in terms of deterrence, we’d be better off with some sort of corporal punishment, or shorter terms in exceptionally harsh prisons. Has anybody asked convicts what they think would work?

    “On the other hand, living in California, I’d have to say that anything is better than the three strikes law, where you can go to jail for life for stealing a pizza”

    No, you can go to prison for life for demonstrating (a third time) that you are a criminal who can’t be rehabilitated. Are you one of those people who is mystified at the crime rate going down with all the people we have in jail?

  • rob

    When Saddam Hussein was executed he looked very dignified. Was it the clothes?

  • Dave

    The question: “If you get to choose your last meal but not your clothes before being executed?” is not useful unless you first explore why the condemned person is given this privilege to begin with. I once attended a forensics lecture in which this was explored. It is basically a sociological question, but no definite answer was forthcoming. The picture that I came away with was that death row in a prison is a complex social setting, full of tradition, in which each player fulfills a role. The inmate to be executed has prescribed act he will participate in including dress code. It is common knowledge that the dress code for everyone at most social occasions is prescribed, so why should this be different? The reason that the prisoner has the choice of meal is not clear and the lecturer could come up with various possibilities, none of was mutually exclusive nor particularly abstruse.

    All social activities, especially those associated with death, are tradition rich. Just because there are certain parameters where choice is permissible, this obviously does not open the door to choice in all areas. Thus it is not a matter of logical consistency and to try to make it so is kind of childlike. It’s like asking Mommy why the fork is on the left side. The question does not really yield to logic, nor do many similar questions, despite the ability to fan up massive amounts of opaque verbal smoke or to try to make it the source of some political point.

  • Julian Morrison

    The explanation for this seems simple to me. It’s not that we’re being nice to the prisoner. It’s that we fear becoming monsters. We don’t want to do the kinds of measured harm to prisoners that the monkey mind of the public could possibly interpret as fun, not even if it would work better. We want punishment to bore us. If we started enjoying punishing people, then we would obliterate our ability to see ourselves as fundamentally ethically separated from “barbarism”. This is why tabloids, which eke out ribald enjoyment even from the deliberate boredom of legal punishment, are seen as a bit barbaric.

  • Larry Lard

    > The whole point of punishing criminals is to discourage would-be criminals from doing crimes.

    The whole point? Really? Wikipedia has seven; an elementary text on jurisprudence could probably offer even more.

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