I read an article on NBC News this morning: Boston Bomber Tsarnaev Faces Prison Hell if He Escapes Execution. Then I had a natural question: is supermax prison worse than death?
What life is like in a supermax prison
I’ve had this thought before. One idea behind any death sentence is it’s the strongest punishment imaginable. But is that true? Are there some forms of prison that could be worse than death? The answer has to be “yes”.
If Dzhokhar Tsarnaev, the man convicted of the Boston Marathon bombings, gets sentenced to life in prison, he’d likely go to the supermax prison in Colorado. Here’s how the NBC News article described the prison:
Prisoners spend about 23 hours a day in solitary confinement in 12-by-7-foot cells with a single 4-inch-wide window and walls thick enough to stifle any attempts at communication. A slot in the door is used to deliver meals and for any visits.
Amnesty International last year said the facility breached international standards for the humane treatment of prisoners.
“It breaks down the human spirit, it breaks down the human psyche. It breaks your mind,” former supermax inmate Garrett Linderman told CBS’ 60 Minutes in 2009.
Is that worse than death? I think so, particularly for a guy that will turn 22 years old in July. He’s likely looking down the barrel at 50 years of 23 hours a day in an 84 square foot prison cell. It boggles my mind to even consider that possibility, much less live it out.
Supermax prison kills people in a different way
Hope is a central pillar of humanity. Hope that the future will be better than the past. Hope that we can grow, accomplish greater things, celebrate good times with our friends and family. Difficulties, trials, tribulations are all inevitable. Hope for overcoming these challenges and reaching fulfillment keeps people moving forward.
What if you remove that hope? I don’t mean dim it. I mean kill it. Remove it entirely. Every single day, you know you’ll wake up in an 84 square foot cell, and you’ll go to sleep in that same cell every night. You’ll spend 23 out of every 24 hours in that cell. You’ll spend 96% of the last 50 to 60 years of your life staring at the same four walls.
Supermax prison isn’t like other serious life hurdles
No wonder it “breaks your mind”. Even people that have experienced extraordinary physical trauma can feel fulfilled, because they have their mind. They reset their goals and build incredible lives around working hard to meet those goals and then setting new ones. Life is about accomplishment, whether it’s meeting personal goals, family goals, community goals, whatever.
The word “accomplishment” never enters the picture at supermax prison. Life is put on hold, never to resume. And it’s on hold in nearly the worst possible condition. You still have your physical health, but your mind deteriorates. You lose your connection to humanity. Human beings are such social creatures. And supermax prison, over time, drives all those social elements right out of your existence.
Is it worse than death?
For a moment, ignore the traditional death penalty debates. Consider only what the strongest, legal punishment might be for our worst criminals. Is it death? Or might it be extreme isolation, supermax-style?