Thursday, April 17, 2014

Hiding Death: The Not-So Public Misapplication of a Public Institution

By Arthur Longworth

Prisoners in Walla Walla can see the top of the "Death House" from the exercise yard. It’s an unobtrusive brick structure atop 6 Wing, the three story turn-of-the-century cell house farthest from the prison`s front gate, and farthest from the town outside that gate from which the prison got its unofficial name. We can see the tension that runs through prison staff prior to an execution. They wear it on their faces - which are more taut, weighed down with expressions more grave than at any other time - as if they’re keeping a secret they’re neither proud of nor willing to share. And, even though no one tells us, we know why we’re ordered into cells early and locked down the evening of an execution. But there is no other observable sign that death is carried out within the walls.

Capital punishment is cached inside prison, buried so deep that only hints of it leak out. The condemned. Death Row, and the entire ritual of execution are maintained separate from any other aspect of prison - like a quarantined island within its walls. That’s because execution is not merely an adjunct form of punishment inside prison; it’s a contradiction of the philosophy and principles upon which the institution was founded. The task of killing people was pushed into prison, but it’s not a function modern-day prison was instituted to perform.

Before reformers in the l8th century organized incarceration into a formalized system of criminal sanction, the system of justice extant in both the Old and New World was public punishment. That is, punishment- including capital punishment- meted out directly on the body of the accused, as a spectacle: in town squares, in front of city halls, and on fairgrounds. Prison existed prior to the incarceration system, but its function was limited primarily to detention: holding persons for investigation, pending trial, or until the time and date set for their tum in front of the public. Incarceration was incidental to a person’s sentence under the public punishment system; it wasn`t utilized as a sentence in itself.

The idea of replacing public punishment with incarceration arose during the Enlightenment, when social scientists and philosophers worked together in a great effort to rethink society’s institutions and restructure them in ways that emphasized reason over tradition. This stepping away from directly punishing the accused`s body. The concept of punishing individuals by depriving them of liberty, horrified many at the time who viewed it as worse than what one faced under public punishment. The reformers defended incarceration by making clear the philosophy behind it ~ which was that more should be required from those convicted of a crime than the mere experience of misery; that society would be best served through the reform of those who were handed over to prison. This was the only reason, according to the reformers, that this type of system made sense or could be justified. Incarceration for any other purpose would be "indefensible" - a waste of resource that would be better spent elsewhere. The progenitors of the present day justice system expressly stated that the idea was “not to punish less, but to punish better."

This change in the purpose of punishment necessarily brought with it a change to prison; prison would no longer be a place for the mere containment of human beings. Prisons were retooled for a greater purpose and underpinned with a structure similar to other institutions. This was the birth of modern-day prison: prison as an institution, a means to train individuals, corrections.

Incarceration was embraced in America nearly simultaneous to our birth as a nation. Perhaps because our forefathers had an especial dislike of the system inherited from the Old World, which had always been based on a sovereign. Crimes under the public punishment system were prescribed offenses against the king, and every sentence was carried out in his name. The new system was more in keeping with our new form of government: a system “for and by the people.”

And America had its own great thinkers who helped shape the institution of prison. Americans are credited with many of prison’s early innovation; institutional refinements such as classification of prisoners and the specializing of prisons through varying levels of pain and treatment theories; the division between penitentiaries and reformatories. A great flood of ideas and technologies aimed at the reform of those convicted of crimes flourished in America.

The institution hasn’t always remained on track with its founding purpose though; its mission, at times, has been subverted. We see this in our state history: in the notorious example of Seatco Prison and the corrupt county sheriffs who worked prisoners to death for their own profit, applying what they called the “water treatment” (i.e., water-boarding) and other forms of torture on their charges. Or, the radiation experiments on prisoners in Walla Walla, when the institution of prison was co-opted by another institution (the University of Washington, sponsored by the federal government). Or, more recently, the large-scale farming out of state prisoners to facilities owned and run by private corporations in distant states, corporations whose financial interest does not lie in reform. And, currently, many experts believe our nation’s decades-long venture into mandatory sentences, mass-incarceration, and requisite long-term solitary confinement is a deviation from the track as well.

However, despite derailments, when viewed through the lens of the reformers` original intent, prison truly is a noble - even beautiful- institution. Even those of us directly subjected to its deprivation and discipline can see this. Modern-day prison’s genesis was our forefathers’ belief in an individual’s ability to reform him/herself.

Although incarceration supplanted public punishment, one form of punishment was retained from the old system for those judged incorrigible or unreformable: capital punishment. And this form of punishment remained public - outside the institution of prison. It didn’t make sense to those administering the system that the condemned would be handed over to an institution whose function was to reform individuals. As courts in our nation evolved though, the time required to avail oneself of the legal process attached to capital punishment lengthened: the appeal process stretched into years. That is when states began to hand the condemned over to prison. And. not long after, the process of execution moved out of the public sphere and into prison as well.

But capital punishment has always been ill-fitted to the institution of prison. To accommodate it, special units (i.e.. "Death Rows") had to be carved out in order to segregate the condemned and the process of execution, which doesn’t correlate with any other function of the institution. For those sentenced to death, prison remains only what it was under public punishment (merely a means to contain them until the time set for the carrying out of their sentence).

Many states, as well as the federal government, have attempted to better consolidate capital punishment with prison by instituting forms of execution perceived as humane. Traditional execution terms prior to capital punishments incorporation into prison used the compounding of misery (i.e., suffering) - drawing out the dying process - in degrees delineated by the court. Persons burned at the stake sometimes were strangled first, while others were sentenced to be burned alive; persons sent to the scaffold sometimes were simply hanged, while others had their hands cut off or their tongue cut out prior; and. persons condemned to the wheel sometimes had their bones broken in a way that brought death quickly, while others faced breaking in ways that extended the dying process over several days. Humaneness in more modern forms of execution is thought to be exercised through the abrogation of any drawing out of the dying process ~ reducing execution as much as possible, to a single moment in time, as well as avoidance of any corporal pain or discomfort related to it. This was the intent behind the electric chair, gas chamber, firing squad and, more recently, lethal injection.

But modern forms of execution only differ from forms practiced under public punishment on the surface; the only real difference is in the perception of the society carrying out the act. The misery inflicted upon the condemned today (who exist under conditions of long-term solitary confinement for ten to twenty years or more leading up to execution) is not lessened, nor can it in any way be equated with a single moment in time. Many condemned in our state have begged to forego an appeal for a reason: they prefer death to these conditions.

Neither does the outcome of execution change with form. To whatever degree humaneness or misery enters into execution, it is irrelevant to the end result and that end is not what this institution was founded to do. Using a corrections department to kill people is a contradiction and does not differ from commissioning a hospital, a university, or a church to do it. In fact, since death in our state is now administered as a medical procedure (lethal injection) with the complicity of medical personnel, it might better fit into a hospital. It has already spent hundreds of years ensconced in the church. None of this, of course, is to say that burying capital punishment in prison hasn’t accomplished anything. It has taken executions out of the town square, out from in front of city hall and off the fairgrounds. And it has done this for so long now that the proposition of executing people outside this institution - as a public spectacle - seems foreign. Maybe even immoral.

As a prisoner, capital punishment isn‘t my call. And I don`t pretend that I`m qualified to preach morality to people on the other side of these walls, or to dictate what they should or shouldn`t do. But I do wonder - would you still do this if people were hanged, burned, or broken to death in your town square? Would you keep a person in a cage in your yard for a decade or more, and then lethally inject him?  If you don’t think that would be appropriate out there, maybe you shouldn`t abide its existence in here either.

Arthur Longworth #299180, C-238
Monroe Correctional Complex - WSR
PO BOX 777
Monroe, WA 98272


Anonymous said...

This entire essay comes out of Foucault's "Discipline and Punish"--a dubious work, at best.

CS McClellan/Catana said...

If you're going to criticize, it would be worthwhile to indicate why you think Foucault's work is "dubious." I hope that the implication that the post is merely copied from Foucault is an accident, the result of not thinking through your comment more carefully.