Life on Death Row

So, I’ve been reading this book lately titled, “On Death Row” by Mike James. It’s an unusual book to pick up, I’ll admit that. I grabbed it while at a local market in my hometown, Hamilton one morning. There was an awesome selection from this person’s own collection and I thought, why not?! It will be interesting to read from the perspectives of people actually on death row.

And thus, I started reading. It starts with the writer explaining the first execution he witnessed. He explained how he was sent there as a writer and the nerves he felt beforehand. As you can imagine, for someone watching another person being executed, it wasn’t pleasant. It was via electrocution and there were three in a row being executed. For a first experience, he certainly wasn’t eased in, but this began a first of many for him. Yet, as he explained, it was something he never got used to.

He proceeded to dive into the stories of others who were executed. Now, before I continue, I must be clear that I’m not writing about my views on the death penalty. Nor am I trying to convince anyone to be either for or against the death penalty. You are well entitled to your own viewpoints and I can absolutely understand both points of view on the issue. But, I do want to share with you what I’ve learned through reading this book so far.

The first story was horrific. As someone who cannot tolerate violence towards young children, reading about a man who raped and murdered 3 boys the same age as my nephew, I wasn’t sure I wanted to keep reading. I felt ill and horrified. I can never understand how a person comes to the decision to perform these acts. Yet, as the murderer explained, he couldn’t stop. He openly admitted that death was the only way for him to stop. If he were released, he would do it again. In fact, he requested to be hanged.

It must be my curiosity that sparked my need to continue reading. I need to know why. Why people make the decisions they do. Why they ‘can’t stop’. What made them start in the first place. And what actually surprised me was that there are some commonalities between the criminals in each story.

They all seemed to have rough childhoods and upbringings. They were treated as rubbish and constantly reminded that they were of no value to their families, communities or society. Most were brought up in homes that contained violence and often left home at a young age. Some hadn’t had contact with family in years, often finding new families with the people they meet in prison. Needless to say, it’s not an excuse for their behaviour but it’s certainly an interesting insight into how we can prevent others from becoming like the man above. Their only exit from their own life being death.

The most interesting chapter dives into the story of a man who was much like the others yet, he had a profound difference. He was incredibly intelligent. It made him difficult to catch to begin with and, when caught, he spent his time in prison fighting the death penalty. He spent days and nights studying law books and writing his own legal cases. He fought his own case many times in the courtrooms and challenged the legal system for years.

His battles with the justice system helped prolong his time on death row yet, he was never released. He was eventually executed for his crimes. What was most interesting was that in the time he was on death row, he spent his time continuing his studies and writing books. He wrote novels but also wrote books on the topic of death row. Many psychologists pushed for his sentence to be withdrawn simply so he could finish more of his work as what he was up to was astonishing and a first of its kind.

Why I share this story however, is that I found his viewpoints on criminals interesting. He made some really good points. His main point being that prison, and death row, are not the answer for helping people like himself to turn their lives around. In fact, he wrote: “I believe that so long as we seek a negative answer with punishment and threat of punishment, deluding ourselves with the witless fiction that punishment per se is either correction or a cure, we will continue to see the problem get worse.”

“For the youthful offender can be likened to a kettle filled with water under which a fire has been lit. Steam begins to generate – and when we seek to solve by punishment in reality we do no more than attempt to hold back the potentially explosive pressure of the steam by plugging the spout and holding down the lid, meanwhile scolding the kettle and holding it responsible for this phenomenon.
We leave the fire burning, and the pressure grows greater, until inevitably there is an explosion. These physical explosions we call crime. And when the explosions express themselves homicidally, we have our gas chambers ready.”

This was Caryl Chessman, executed in 1960. There has been a movie about his life and trials, and his books are still available. Check out information on his on Wikipedia here.

From picking this book up on a whim out of curiosity, my views on the death penalty are unchanged but I have a new insight and awareness into the criminal mind and what leads to the problem. From the quoted text from Caryl Chessman, I’m left wondering, are we doing the right thing for our youth who perform acts of ‘crime’ by locking them up? Is there a better way to deal with criminal acts rather than ‘punishment’? What is the answer to the criminal problems around the world?

I would love to hear your views on the topic!

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