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“Waking up to gray walls and black bars…in the silence of ones own thoughts, leaves one to a feeling of somberness…as those around begin to stir and began their individual day, hope creeps into ones mind….as the discussions regarding legal strategies began, hope then becomes more than just a shadow…as guys began to discuss their potential future beyond prison and being locked in a cell for days at a time, hope becomes more than just a fleeting moment! Silence can sometimes be ones own enemy on death row:-…So I condition myself to discover the “why” I fight through the fits of depression and despair, instead of focusing on the “how’s”….because pursuit of the “why’s” bring about methods of finding a solution….encouragement to remain hopeful!”
Everyone has the right to life, liberty and security of person (1).
Without the right to life, we cannot enjoy the freedoms set forth in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.
However, what if one’s life was imprisoned and waiting to be ended for crime? In addition, what if a person was to be put to death for associating with a particular demographic?
The death penalty is the authorization of the state to kill a citizen for a crime, whether it’s murder, rape, treason, or more severe crimes, such as crimes against humanity and genocide (2).
Whilst the death penalty can be a deterrent, provide justice, and be the ultimate punishment for a crime and justice for victims, it is also used in some countries to persecute minority groups, such as the LGBT community (3) (4). (In references, there is a link to an interactive map of countries that utilize the death penalty for LGBT groups).
According to the Death Penalty Information Centre (DPIC), around 82% of cases involving capital punishment, race was a determining factor of giving this punishment, in comparison to white counterparts (5). However, the justice system is far from perfect, and miscarriages of justice occur. Due to issues of racism and racial bias (particularly within the American Justice System), this has seen members of minority groups and innocent people put on death row whilst a criminal still walks free. A damning example of a miscarriage of justice, and a clear demonstration of racism, is the case of George Stinney, whom, at the age of 14, was wrongly accused of murdering 2 girls. He was taken to court, tried by an all white jury, and was given the electric chair (6).
This, ultimately, is the state failing to protect its citizens, and causing irreparable damage to others. The George Stinney case is a condemnatory example of this. On top of that, it is hard to measure deterrence, and whether capital punishment actually deters people from committing crime.
However, what is it actually like being on death row?
June 2017 saw the start of a new friendship – a unique friendship. What simply started out with me wanting to reach out and be a ray of light to someone on death row, turned into a wonderful experience of sharing, support and immeasurable beauty. In June 2017, I began writing to a man on death row, and simply wanted to be a ray of light to someone in a dark place.
He has shared some of his thoughts of what it is like to be on death row:
“Perseverance. This is key when facing a day in prison (physically and mentally) because is never “where” you are physically, but your ability and willingness took push through those times of adversity and overcome the very things that have the power to bring you down….such as evil”. BUT- when we examine the word “evil” look closely…. Do you see it yet? ….. It’s “LIVE” backwards and to me its when we lose our patience to “LIVE” that we have brushes with “evil”…no???? So within these walls I do my best to find the “silver lining” and develop the better aspects of me”.
Now, it may seem effortlessly -but- in all honestly….its very difficult to face each day with the uncertainty of knowing whether the presence I have is one that has significance….in here I have to prepare myself on a constant basis in order to be the best version of myself no matter what lays ahead.
Thankfully….I have met an incredible person, who guides me by way of her words…offers me comforts by way of her thoughts and prayer and encourages me through her never ending presence! She is beautiful in every aspect of the word…She has helped me to discover that EVERYTHING and NOTHING awaits beyond forever!
(1) Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UNDH) Article 1 Available online at: https://www.un.org/en/universal-declaration-human-rights/ Accessed on 21/01/2020
(2) Louise Gaille ’15 Biggest Capitol Pros and Cons’ Available online at: https://vittana.org/15-biggest-capital-punishment-pros-and-cons Accessed on 24/03/2020
(3) The Human Dignity Trust ‘Saudi Arabia: Types of Criminalisation’ Available online at: https://www.humandignitytrust.org/country-profile/saudi-arabia/ Accessed on 24/03/2020
(4) Death Penalty Information Centre ‘Executions By Race and Race of Victim’ Available online at: https://deathpenaltyinfo.org/executions/executions-overview/executions-by-race-and-race-of-victim
(6) Snopes Fact Check ‘Did South Carolina Execute 14-year-old George Stinney, then declare him innocent 70 years later?’ Available online at: https://www.snopes.com/fact-check/george-stinney-execution-exoneration/ Accessed on 24/03/2020
Interactive map of countries where the death penalty is used against the LGBT community: https://www.humandignitytrust.org/lgbt-the-law/map-of-criminalisation/?type_filter=crim_gender_exp
Human Writes: https://www.humanwrites.org
“History is not just stuff that happens by accident, we are the products of the history that our ancestors chose, if we are White. If we are Black we are products of the history our ancestors most likely didn’t choose.”Kevin Gannon, 13th
And many of our cities in Britain are this melting pot due to the very same history our ancestors chose / didn’t choose; and the reason Britain has a variation of different faces is much to do (but not only) because of Britain’s colonial ambition.
Episode seven of the latest series of Who Do You Think You Are? was on TV entertainer Sharon Osbourne. Her family were victims of the Irish Potato Famine. Whilst the episode skirts over it, saying it occurred due to crop failures (with no real explanation), some would suggest that it was due to heavy-handed (British) colonial rule which assured those crop failures, leading to mass migration, starvation and death. For a show that is basically a series of history lectures, it does a good job of tiptoeing around uncomfortable (truths) bits of history.
As the late Jamaican philosopher and academic Stuart Hall said, “We are here because you were there” and we are now all here together, the products of our ancestors’ choices. I’ve been following this series of Who Do You Think You Are? with great interest and fascination. Almost every episode has had me hooked. And this latest episode with Sharon Osbourne was heartbreaking, with her great-grandmother Annie being the sole survivor of her six siblings, after disease and weakness took them.
The family emigrated to Massachusetts, USA in the mid-19th century and they worked in a cotton mill, the biggest in America and the second biggest in the world, only dwarfed by one in Manchester, Lancashire.
What irked me was the lack of contextual explanation around cotton during this time. Why wasn’t there any explanation regarding the history of cotton in the United States? Moreover, that relationship between American cotton and the mills of Lancashire and Cheshire (some 4500 mills in Lancashire and southern Scotland). What about the Industrial Revolution and how colonialism and the enslaved Black people that paid for it?
In a country still living in the aftermath of The Slave Trade, you cannot talk about cotton in America without talking about where the cotton came from. The same cotton made into cloth in Massachusetts would have came from cotton plantations, whether picked by African-Americans slaves (pre-1865) or “like-labour,” post-Civil War – since after abolition, the establishment entered into something called convict leasing. Prisoners loaned to plantation owners for a period, which (in itself) was legalised slavery. A loophole in the 13th Amendment stated that you could not be a slave, unless you were a criminal and imprisoned, thus America enters mass incarceration.
Black people in America were arrested for minor crimes like theft and vagrancy, and then imprisoned in mass. These prisoners were “rented” and put to work on plantations through the South – sugar, tobacco, cotton and more. The fact they didn’t feel the need to mention the context behind cotton in America is astounding, nor how the American cotton trade impacted Britain, for example the Lancashire Cotton Famine (1861 – 1865).
Yes, this episode is about Sharon Osbourne’s ancestors, but they were part of a longer story – a subtler history – the other half of cotton’s history that isn’t taught at school. And in places like Mississippi, where cotton was sailed down the Mississippi River by paddle steam, the local planters said:
“Cotton Is King.”
In Britain, we learn about spinning jennies. We learn about water frames and the Child Labour Act (1833), but not where cotton came from. This is American history and British history. It’s also working-class history. But in addition, it’s Black (British) history.
We are here because you were there; this is the history our ancestors chose, if you are White. But if you are Black, it’s the history your ancestors didn’t choose. And the least we can do is tell it right.
13th. Dir. Ava DuVernay. Netflix. 2016. Streaming platform.
Alexander, Michelle. The New Jim Crow. New York: The New Press, 2010. Print.
Olusoga, David. Black and British: A Forgotten History. London: Macmillan, 2016. Print.
For those of you who follow The Criminology Team on Facebook you might have caught @manosdaskalou and I live from Eastern State Penitentiary [ESP]. In this entry, I plan to reflect on that visit in a little more depth.
We first visited ESP in 2011 when the ASC conference was held in Washington, DC. That visit has never left me for a number of reasons, not least the lengths societies are prepared to go in order to tackle crime. ESP is very much a product of its time and demonstrates extraordinarily radical thinking about crime and punishment. For those who have studied the plans for Jeremy Bentham’s panopticon there is much which is familiar, not least the radial design (see illustration below).
This is an institution designed to resolve a particular social problem; crime and indeed deter others from engaging in similar behaviour through humane and philosophically driven measures. The Philadelphia Society for Alleviating the Miseries of Public Prisons* was philanthropic and guided by religious principles. This is reflected in the term penitentiary; a place for sinners to repent and In turn become truly penitent.
This philosophy was distinct and radical with a focus on reformation of character rather than brutal physical punishment. Of course, scholars such as Ignatieff and Foucault have drawn attention to the inhumanity of such a regime, whether deliberate or unintentional, but that should not detract from its groundbreaking history. What is important, as criminologists, is to recognise ESP’s place in the history of penology. That history is one of coercion, pleading, physical and mental brutality and still permeates all aspects of incarceration in the twenty-first century. ESP have tried extremely hard to demonstrate this continuum of punishment, acknowledging its place among many other institutions both home and abroad.
For me the question remains; can we make an individual change their behaviour through the pains of incarceration? I have argued previously in this blog in relation to Conscientious Objectors, that all the evidence suggests we cannot. ESP, as daunting as it may have been in its heyday, would also seem to offer the same answer. Until society recognises the harm and futility of incarceration it is unlikely that penal reform, let alone abolition, will gain traction.
*For those studying CRI1007 it is worth noting the role of Benjamin Rush in this organisation.