February 8, 2013
Reading Plato on Death Row


There’s a thoughtful piece about teaching Platonic dialogues to death row inmates in Tennessee that concludes with a powerful statement about how the transformations undergone by death row inmates, if seen, fundamentally undermine the goals of the death penalty system:

[I]n order to perform the anaesthetic function of soothing public anxieties around both violent crime and the violence of the criminal justice system, the prisoner’s own aesthetic practices must remain invisible. The job of the death row inmate is not to transform himself, but to remain the same throughout an appeals process that can last years or even decades.


There are countless prisoners on death row who are working harder than we can imagine to transform themselves and to build a meaningful sense of community. We could learn a lot from these people if we weren’t so determined to kill them.

The piece sets this argument about the expectations of the public against discussions with the inmates about the trial and execution of Socrates, as well as artwork created by death row inmates. These conversations about philosophy, literature, and art belie the impressions of death row inmates that keep the vast majority of us so apathetic about strapping them down and injecting them full of poison.

LTMC:  I am reminded of Winston Churchill’s speech to the House of Commons in 1910 (via David Cole):

The mood and temper of the public in regard to the treatment of crime and criminals is one of the most unfailing tests of the civilisation of any country. A calm dispassionate recognition of the rights of the accused, and even of the convicted criminal, against the State— a constant heart-searching by all charged with the duty of punishment— a desire and eagerness to rehabilitate in the world of industry those who have paid their due in the hard coinage of punishment: tireless efforts towards discovery of curative and regenerative processes: unfailing faith that there is a treasure, if you can only find it, in the heart of every man. These are the symbols, which in the treatment of crime and criminal, mark and measure the stored-up strength of a nation, and are sign and proof of the living virtue in it.

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    Capital punishment is a serious issue that needs to be more critically examined. Is it necessary? If so, what function...
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