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.