British judges can sentence heinous criminals to ‘whole-life’ tariffs. These sentences are used sparingly with only about 60 people serving such sentences currently*. Whole-life tariffs are a prolonged death sentence. Life expectancy is unaffected by prison life and so a man (it’s usually a man) of 30 can expect to be in prison for fifty years or more. Whole-life sentences are an expensive evasion of moral problems associated with ending capital punishment: a death sentence without direct state involvement. An alternative route is a negotiated death sentence, negotiated between the state and the criminal. Outlandish as this seems, it meets the necessity of justice being served whilst acknowledging the human rights and dignity of the criminal.
Gary Gilmore, an American murderer, was offered the choice between hanging and the firing squad in 1977. Unhesitatingly he chose the firing squad believing this was less likely to be botched. Alan Turing, a mathematical genius and professor, found guilty of gross indecency in Britain (1952), was offered the choice between (effectively) chemical castration and imprisonment. He chose the former, committing suicide in 1954 having had his life wrecked. Ancient Athenians suggested their own punishment, which Socrates famously did in 399 BC. His suggestion was taken to be frivolous and his death sentence** was supervised suicide.
Arthur Hutchinson was sentenced in 1983 to a whole-life tariff when 42 years old. He recently lost a Human Rights case claiming that his punishment was ‘inhuman and degrading’*** and so remains in prison until he dies a natural death. He has already served 31 years. Warehousing heinous criminals for whole-life sentences isn’t identical to a death sentence. There is no place-of-execution, no gallows, no firing squad, no medicalised execution: just four walls decade after decade.
Would Hutchinson prefer to die at a determined time instead of continuing ‘an inhuman and degrading’ life? No choice will be offered but it should be as it isn’t credible to suggest that he is ‘escaping’ justice. He’s already served 31 years. Retribution shades into revenge once any connexion with proportionality has been breached. Hutchinson is a victim of moral cowardice insofar as the state clearly wants him dead but won’t execute him. Could the state use the Dignitas model resolving everyone’s dilemmas?
Hutchinson is 73 and can coherently suggest that ‘enough is enough’. Committing suicide isn’t a crime in Britain **** but he can’t exercise that right as his freedom of action is severely curtailed along with other freedoms. Assisted suicide is an elegant solution for the suicidal, having deadly humane efficiency. Dignitas provides facilities for assisted suicide for the terminally ill but this revised model is for those who are terminally depressed because of their ‘inhuman and degrading’ punishment. Heinous criminals such as Hutchinson are subject to psychological cruelty. Put less politely they are being tortured. This punishment isn’t retribution, it’s revenge: immoral at best or even amoral.
The moral cowardice of British politicians prohibits capital punishment consigning criminals to indeterminate death sentences. Heinous criminals are ‘warehoused’ for decades. Prison prevents self-designed suicide because of constant surveillance. Making available assisted suicide to those sentenced to whole-life tariffs is a humane solution to the natural desire of people to end misery. Capital punishment is vile: is an indeterminate sentence of fifty years or more worse?*****
**For perverting young men’s minds in 399 BC
***Guardian 3rd Feb. 2015
****This begs the question of whether criminals do have a human right to suicide as the state abandoned its ‘ownership’ of citizens lives in 1961 with the passing of the Suicide Act. This proposition would challenge ‘suicide watches’, which actively prevent prisoner suicide attempts.
******See http://www.nybooks.com/blogs/nyrblog/2015/sep/10/solitary-confinement-beginning-end/ For the incredible excesses that California goes to in the use of solitary confinement