Yesterday, Connecticut became the 17th state in the US to abolish the death penalty. It joins New Jersey, New Mexico, New York and Illinois as what we might call "new abolitionist" states. California may be soon to follow, and even Kentucky is making cautious moves towards abolition.
As we celebrate this victory and work towards abolition in other states, we need to remember that state execution is not the only ethically and politically questionable part of the US prison system, even if it is the most hotly debated.
It is arguably not even the only form of "death penalty," if by death we mean not only the cessation of biological life but also the destruction of psychic and social personhood.
Stuart Grassian, Craig Haney, Terry Kupers and others have shown that prolonged solitary confinement produces intense anxiety, paranoia, cognitive difficulties, perceptual distortions such as hallucinations, and physical illness in many prisoners. Charles Dickens called it "secret punishment which slumbering humanity is not roused up to stay." Atul Gawande calls it torture.
A lifetime of solitary confinement without the chance of release amounts to a death-in-life sentence.
And yet, this is precisely what Connecticut has substituted as an alternative to capital punishment! Solitary Watch reports (quoting from The Day):
Under the bill, those convicted [of Class A felony murder, which would have otherwise been treated as a capital offense] must be housed separately from other inmates, subjected to twice-weekly cell searches and must change their cells every three months. They would get no more than two hours a day outside their cells and would be allowed only “non-contact” visitation privileges.
Is this any better than a death sentence?
I will pose this question to the eight inmates on Tennessee's death row with whom I meet every two weeks, along with five other "outsiders," for a reading and discussion group. I will report back to you next Thursday.