Posted by Adam @ 1:42 pm on February 24th 2007

Execute them and throw away the key

I am against the Death Penalty. I am unconvinced that it’s morally defensible and, furthermore, I am just not convinced that it works in any case. Gregory Kane, however, makes a good and interesting argument based around the continuing criminal activities of prisoners, not just in Maryland, which is the focus of his article, but across the country.

Kane’s argument is basically that criminals in prison continue their criminal activities; they are involved in gang wars inside prison which spill out onto the streets outside the prison, they order criminal activities outside the prison and they pose a serious physical risk to their guards. Regarding that last, Kane makes the point that a guy serving life with no possibility of parole stands to lose little from murdering a prison guard (or, presumably, a fellow prisoner). Thus, the argument against the death penalty, to which I myself subscribe, that they’re locked away forever and so the safety of the public is already assured without an execution, fails because the public aren’t, in fact, safe from these people.

I don’t deny the facts that Kane uses; I agree with him, too, that these are matters of considerable concern. However, my intepretation of these facts is that they show that something is seriously wrong with the prison system regardless of whether execution exists as an alternative.

Firstly, the activities of prisoners towards each other in general, not just gang violence, isn’t a hot issue but it’s a serious one. If we ignore it, a prison sentence is better or worse for a convicted felon depending on how brutal they are, or else how connected they are. That’s not the purpose of criminal sentencing; the worst people, under that sort of regime, will generally have the best time in prison.

Secondly, the fact that some of the activity inside prison spills over to the outside world isn’t going to be stopped by executing some prisoners. Prisoners who would not be up for execution will still be involved in those spillover activities; executing some of the worst prisoners prisoners won’t stop it. Furthermore, executing someone takes so very long that snuffing them out after, say, 5-10 years just isn’t going to be a magic bullet. The big problem is that incarceration isn’t solving the gang problem at any level (as admitted in this ncjrs summary of research). However, the issue is bigger than gang violence spilling over, anyhow; most prisoners will be released eventually and they’ll bring the legacy of their prison time with them and that creates serious problems of its own.

Thirdly, and I think, most importantly, Kane argues that prisoners serving life sentences without the possibility of parole have nothing to fear from the prison system. I am not convinced of that, given that people in prison still care about their conditions, but it’s still an argument of some strength. While I don’t personally have a strong feeling about whether the ‘life without parole’ sentences should be issued in the first place (although I agree that it should most certainly be the case that, in matter of fact, people do end up serving for the whole of their life, depending on the prisoner), I do agree that people facing the rest of their life in prison may, indeed, abandon self-preservation instincts. But is Kane OK with prison officers serving in a situation where all that stops them from being murdered is the fear, on the part of a ‘life without parole’, of copping a death sentence? Surely the problem is that these guards are working in a situation where it isn’t remotely unlikely that their murder by an inmate can occur. It’s an issue with how prisons are run.

So, Kane picks out some serious problems. They are, though, part of the bigger problem that America has with its prisons. The death penalty won’t solve them and we shouldn’t be diverted from consideration of the big problems by the desire to keep or impose the emotionally satisfying ‘remedy’ of the death penalty. It’s not clear that it works and certainly not clear that it works well enough to overcome moral objections to the state’s rule as executioner nor the possibility of innocent people being executed; Kane’s arguments, then, identify problems with the prison system, but aren’t identifying their solution.


  1. There is no excuse for gangs running the prisons. The idea that it can’t be stooped is insane. They can stop it and it’s their job to do so.

    Comment by Robbie — 2/24/2007 @ 8:52 pm

  2. That’s pretty much my opinion. I don’t know why the American people stand for it (well, I do sort of know, but I don’t understand it).

    Comment by Adam — 2/24/2007 @ 9:06 pm

  3. MSNBC has a lot of those inside prison type shows. It goes into the culture inside some of these prisons. The inmates run it, the gaurds just work there. It’s crazy.

    I feel for the guy that gets sent to prison for something silly and is then faced with the reality that he may have to fight or even kill someone just to survive. Because if he dosen’t he will be a “punk” and never have another day of peace.

    Comment by Robbie — 2/24/2007 @ 10:38 pm

  4. I don’t want to ever see industrial scale killing by the state for any reason, and that is what it may take for this problem.

    I say the punks need to be shown who really runs the prison after all.

    Comment by Robbie — 2/24/2007 @ 10:43 pm

  5. I don’t know what the solution is, either. I imagine that it could be expensive (although it might be that there are savings to be had from not sending cannabis users to prison, for example). It’s not justice when the worst guys sent to prison have a good time compared to the less hardened criminals.

    Comment by Adam — 2/25/2007 @ 5:41 am

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