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     Jan 17, '14

Doing soft time in US prisons

The Death of Punishment: Searching for Justice among the Worst of the Worst by Robert Blecker

Reviewed by Jim Ash

US legal scholar and death-penalty advocate Robert Blecker thinks rapists and killers should suffer for their crimes. In The Death of Punishment: Searching for Justice among the Worst of the Worst, he demands that the most terrible criminals pay a

price: either a state-sponsored execution, or a ticket for life to a prison that is as unpleasant as the American constitution will allow.

On the death-penalty question, it is unlikely Blecker's book will convince any opponents to switch camps. He buries his attempt at a rational argument for capital punishment in the book's weakest section, an opening that intersperses an uninteresting biography with a half-hearted tour of Western moral philosophy. The philosophical discussion sees the author contradicting himself - damning the sophists on one page, admitting they had a point a few pages later - and then abandoning the whole project because he can't find a thinker who fully shares his zeal for the death penalty.

Any reader still on board at this point has probably figured out that the author supports capital punishment for emotional and intuitive reasons, rather than rational ones. But the author decides he needs to know the enemy before he can condemn him, and goes on a tour of the US prison system to talk to some of the worst killers housed in it. This journey - which ultimately involves decades worth of discussions with hundreds of prisoners in facilities across the US - launches the book into far more successful terrain.

Blecker doesn't buy into the view that American prisons are hellish places, and that being sentenced to one for life is worse than being killed. He argues that the system is only dangerous and frightening for the people that least to deserve it to be: the inmates on short sentences, usually for non-violent offences; and the prisoners who haven't even been found guilty and are awaiting trial in jails, which are far more overcrowded, uncontrolled and violent than prisons.

For their long-term inhabitants - rapists and murderers, the "worst of the worst" - US prisons can be quite pleasant, Blecker writes. The inmates have good food, TVs and recreational facilities, and a pyramid of privileges to climb up as a reward for behaving themselves inside. This includes the eventual transfer to a medium-security prison, where life will be even more comfortable.

Blecker's argument that prison needs to be more punishing doesn't always convince, but it is thought-provoking. Also fascinating is the way in which the author's interactions with the prisoners force him to confront his own beliefs. Most telling is the bond Blecker forms with Daryl Holton, a Tennessee man who killed his own children in 1997. The author thinks Holton deserves to die, and tells him as much in their first death-row interview in 2006. But by the time Holton is finally executed in 2007, the two have forged a halting friendship and Blecker feels pain, not triumph, over his death.

There is a sense the author has lost his enthusiasm for capital punishment by this point in the narrative, although he says he still supports it in extreme cases. But Blecker has an alternative to the death penalty: a truly punitive penal regime reserved solely for the worst psychopaths. These prisoners would serve life sentences in the strictest lockdown, without even the pleasure of food - Blecker suggests serving them nothing but nutritious but foul-tasting nutraloaf, which is usually only fed to US inmates as a punishment - and forever denied any sort of recreation or real human contact.

But the reader is left wondering if Blecker could really subject another person to a living hell like this. The author has already undercut his argument for such a response by revealing how bitter the taste of retributive justice can be. However heinous the crimes might be, Blecker has shown us that the criminal is still a human being, and that the problem of how a civilized society deals with monstrous behavior is as difficult as ever.

The Death of Punishment: Searching for Justice among the Worst of the Worst by Robert Blecker. Palgrave Macmillan (17 Dec 2013). ISBN-10: 1137278560 Price: US$17.99; 320 pages.

Jim Ash is a Canadian journalist.

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