Friday, 16 December 2011

NATURAL LIFE IMPRISONMENT: The alternative to capital punishment

In September 1980, the United Nations held a conference in Caracas called the Sixth United Nations Congress on the Prevention of Crime and the Treatment of Offenders. One of the topics was on capital punishment. Nine countries brought in a resolution in which they asked the nations attending the conference to suspend all executions for the next five years so that an alternative could be found to take its place. I am an abolitionist but I knew that if capital punishment was still on the books, the nations would work all the harder to find the alternative. In my speech, I recommended that capital punishment remain as it is and that the alternative should be natural life in prison. The nine countries withdrew their resolution and many countries began seriously thinking of natural life as a suitable alternative and subsequently they abolished capital punishment in their countries.

I was invited to speak at the Ninth United Nations Congress on the Prevention of Crime and the Treatment of Offenders held in Cairo, Egypt, May 6, 1995. Again we talked about the alternative to capital punishment. This was the speech I gave on the alternative to capital punishment.

One of the most difficult issues to deal with in criminal justice is whether or not the jailing of certain kinds of murderers for the rest of their natural lives will benefit society. The kinds of murderers I envision that would be suitable candidates for natural life imprisonment are; mass and serial killers, murderers who have murdered a second time, professional killers, torture killers, persons who kill witnesses, kidnappers, rapists and child molesters who kill their victims, assassins and terrorists. Jailing such a killer for a term of his or her natural life would serve three purposes.

First, you punish him. Call it vengeance, call it retribution or simply say that he's getting his just deserts. But by exacting such a punishment, it calms the collective anger of the citizens who might otherwise be tempted to hang him from the nearest tree if they could get to him before the police do, or the anger of the families who lost loved ones who would hunt down the murderer when he is eventually released from prison.

Second, it protects society from a killer who may very well continue to have the same propensity to kill again when he is eventually released from prison and who may subsequently leave a trail of bodies wherever he goes. The National Parole Board of Canada a number of years ago, released a study which pointed out that in the previous 12 years, nine men who were sent to prison for murder or manslaughter, killed again when they were released. The study also shows that 130 persons were killed by parolees. The figures showed that 90 were victims of murder and 40 were victims of manslaughter. From these statistics, it should be quite evident that society was not protected from these killers.

Third, it can act as a deterrence to others who would ordinarily gravitate to this kind of behaviour except for the fear of living out the rest of their lives in prison. Obviously, the threat of natural life in prison doesn't deter everyone but there has been evidence that it has deterred some. There are many who would rather see murderers who are convicted of first degree murder, spend the rest of their natural lives in prison so that other potential murderers would think twice before committing the ultimate crime. The question often raised is, what is the price of the life of an innocent victim? Is it right to imprison for natural life, a hundred convicted first-degree murderers so that the life of an innocent victim will be spared by a potential murderer who is deterred by the prospect of serving natural life in prison? There are thousands of members of families of murdered victims who will answer that question in the affirmative.

When I addressed this issue of revenge when dealing with these kinds of murderers both in my brief to the Canadian Parliament in 1973 and again in my address before the Sixth United Nations Congress on the Prevention of Crime and the Treatment of Offenders held in Caracas in 1980, it unleashed a torrent of anger towards me.

I was told in no uncertain terms that when a murderer is imprisoned for the rest of his natural life, and as such, he is denied any hope of ever being free, he, without that hope to sustain him, will become an animal. Those sob sisters are of the same kind who would bleat for mercy for the home grown terrorist who on April 19th, parked a car loaded with explosives next to the federal building in Oklahoma in which the resultant explosion killed hundreds. They would bleat because the concept of imprisoning such a terrorist is, in their opinion, inhumane.

There are thousands of murderers serving natural life imprisonment in the United States and they, for the most part are no better or worse than their fellow prisoners who will eventually be released.

There are exceptions of course, and two good examples of these exceptions are Yvon Martin and Christian Perreault who were both serving 25-year-minimum sentences in the Archambault Penitentiary, a maximum security prison in Quebec. These killers were animals when they entered the prison and they were monsters when they brutally murdered three prison guards in their hopeless escape attempt in 1982.

One is forced to wonder why some lifers act in such a violent fashion while others serve their sentences almost unnoticed. The question is relatively easy to answer.
Prisons are hotbeds of hatred and fear. It is hatred and fear that drive lifers to desperation, not to mention others who are destined to be released a couple of years after they are sentenced to prison. If you treat any human being harshly, he or she will react and often that reaction turns into violence.

Many of these killers are imprisoned because they cannot cope with the strain of living in a society that does not meet their needs or expectations. And yet it is indeed paradoxal that society places them into a cauldron which then ignites their anxiety and frustration even further.

A long-term prisoner's adaptation to prison life isn't helped by prison guards who urinate on his food, smash his TV set, and beat him under the slightest pretext, acts that were prevalent around the time of the Archambault escape attempt of 1982. The prospect of spending the rest of their lives in that kind of prison environment after killing three guards in the Archambault escape attempt was more than the two murderers were prepared to face, so they killed themselves before the guards could reach them.

In 1981, after being invited to sit on the electric chair in Florida while talking about the death penalty with an official of the Florida prison system, (I did it not because I was ghoulish but rather because I was curious) I interviewed a number of condemned prisoners on death row and later several who had their sentences commuted to natural life. Each of them told me that they would choose natural life in prison rather than die in the electric chair.

One prisoner whom I interviewed was serving his sentence of natural life in total solitary confinement and at the time of the interview, he had spent eight years in isolation. By that, I mean that he was locked in a soundproof cell and his only visitors for the most part, were his jailers who brought him his meals. He had had his death sentence commuted and then killed an inmate while serving that sentence. He was a dangerous man and admitted that it was better for everyone that he serve the rest of his life sentence in total isolation. And yet, this man became a self-taught artist and certainly hadn't lost his mind as a result of his imprisonment in total seclusion. This doesn't mean of course, that every prisoner could endure that kind of imprisonment. In fact, solitary confinement can have a disastrous effect on some prisoners.

The question of whether or not life imprisonment in solitary confinement is cruel and unusual punishment has been answered by the Ontario Court of Appeal in a decision released in September 1987. It rejected Canadian serial murderer Clifford Olsen's argument that spending 23 hours a day in solitary confinement was cruel and unusual punishment. The court ruled that the punishment would only violate the Charter if it was to offend the standards of decency and that no such case had been made out by Olsen. This decision was also reached because there wasn't an adequate alternative since placing him in with the general population of any prison would ultimately bring about his early death—which may very well have been welcome news to 99.9 percent of the population of Canada.

A prisoner in Canada spent 27 years in prison and the last three years in solitary confinement. While in solitary confinement, he fantasized killing people. When he was released, he stalked a woman and killed her. He is back in prison serving 25 more years.

On the other hand, James Folson, 86, who died in the Maine State Prison in October of 1987, after having served 51 years of his life in prison, had lived a tranquil life while incarcerated. He had been convicted of molesting and later murdering a seven-year-old girl in 1936 and after his arrest, he admitted having killed another girl the year before. His imprisonment of just over half a century didn't turn this child killer into a guard-killing monster.

There are prisoners who will become monsters if they are incarcerated for a couple of years and others who will remain tranquil if sentenced to 25 years imprisonment. It is almost impossible to determine who will be tranquil and who will turn into a monster. One mass murderer whom I interviewed told me that he could do life standing on his head. Four years later, he hanged himself in prison. Would this man have ever been ready for release back into society? I doubt it. A man who cared nothing about the four he killed, and nothing of his own life, would hardly care for the lives of others if he was set free.

William Palmer, a psychologist who worked with many lifers in the federal Warkwarth Institution in Ontario, said at the Second World Congress of Prison Health in August 1983, that lifers who have shown that they could be trusted, could be placed into medium security institutions within the walls of maximum security prisons. He then went on to say that after some years have passed, these prisoners could then be placed in a minimum security institution within the confines of a medium security prison.

What this means in essence is that perhaps for the first two years of his sentence, the natural lifer would spend it in a maximum security prison where the regimen is extremely harsh and strict. He is essence, would be softened up and made to accept the fact that if he misbehaves while in prison, it is in that kind of prison that he may very well spend the rest of his life.

If he has behaved himself during those two years, then he can be transferred to a medium security prison. There the regimen is somewhat more relaxed but at the same time, he will be constantly aware that he is expected to work hard and have a limited number of privileges.

If after serving twenty years in that kind of setting he has proved that he is a model prisoner, he can be transferred to a minimum prison for the rest of his life. There, everything is very relaxed, the staff, guards and inmates are on a first-name basis, every inmate (called a resident) has the key to his own room, does only light work and has so many amenities that except for the locked exterior doors, and the high fences surrounding him, his imprisonment would be no different than being confined to a rest home.

I realize that there are many law biding citizens as well as families of murder victims who will say that this is coddling murderers. Perhaps after many years of imprisonment for first degree murder, it is, but we have to ask ourselves what is it we wish to accomplish by this three-stage form of imprisonment. If we merely want to punish them, then we should keep them in a maximum security institution. But if we wish to show these lifers that there is a light at the end of the tunnel, we must put a light at the end of the tunnel. Believe me when I say that to a lifer, who after spending two years in a maximum security prison, and twenty more years in a medium security prison, the prospect of spending the rest of his natural life in a relaxed and amiable minimum security prison is indeed a light at the end of the tunnel.

It is my belief that life imprisonment under these conditions is not unduly harsh and society will be permanently protected from those persons who can’t seem to go through life without first killing another human being.

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