Should We Use Biotech To Create A Living Hell For Criminals?
Radical life extension would give humans the power to create an artificial hell for criminals. Should we?
This piece has come across my desktop 3 separate times in the past 24 hours. The answer to its central question is very obviously “No,” but I think the premise requires some discussion.
This notion that criminals don’t suffer enough or get off too easily, especially when they die, really speaks, I think, to the basest part of us, the part that longs to see other people — those who we prefer to think of as monsters — suffer as much as possible.
As I’ve written before,
[A]t the heart of the idea of both the death penalty and life imprisonment without parole is the notion that the offender is completely and utterly devoid of humanity. With this in mind, prison isn’t about correction and rehabilitation; it’s about punishment and revenge. If the death penalty is too expensive, if it risks the execution of an occasional innocent, and if it doesn’t cause all that much suffering, then it can be jettisoned in favor of a punishment that’s cheaper, that we can correct when we err, and that — if done properly — might be even worse for offenders.
Rather than seeking to rehabilitate offenders and keep us safe from those who might try to harm us, we want our prisons to be the most god-forsaken places; we want our punishments to vent all of our rage at crime and criminals; and now, it seems, some of us want to consider creating “a living hell” for criminals we deem not to be able to suffer sufficiently through more conventional means of punishment. Of course, this desire to devise, implement, or marvel at the most awful possible punishments for offenders isn’t anything new. As Nietzsche argues:
Dante, I think, committed a crude blunder when, with a terror-inspiring ingenuity, he placed above the gateway of his hell the inscription “I too was created by eternal love”—at any rate, there would be more justification for placing above the gateway to the Christian Paradise and its “eternal bliss” the inscription “I too was created by eternal hate—provided a truth may be placed above the gateway to a lie! For what is it that constitutes the bliss of this Paradise?
We might even guess, but it is better to have it expressly described for us by an authority not to be underestimated in such matters, Thomas Aquinas, the great teacher and saint. “Beati in regno coelesti,” he says, meek as a lamb, “videbunt poenas damnatorum, ut beatitude illis magis complaceat” (On the Genealogy of Morals: A Polemic in Basic Writings, 485).
In his footnote, Walter Kaufmann translates the Latin: “The blessed in the kingdom of heaven will see the punishments of the damned, in order that their bliss be more delightful for them.” He notes, also, that this is not quite what one finds in Aquinas’ Summa Theologiae; to be exact, Aquinas writes, “Ut beatitude sanctorum eis magis complaceat, et de ea uberiores gratias Deo agant, datur eis ut poenam impiorum perfecte intueantur.” In English: “In order that the bliss of the saints may be more delightful for them and that they may render more copious thanks to God for it, it is given to them to see perfectly the punishment of the damned.” While the original differs from Nietzsche’s rendering of it, the spirit is clearly unchanged. The lengthy quotation that Nietzsche employs following Aquinas, while also in Latin, is even more faithful to its author, Tertullian. Here is a short sample, in English:
Yes, and there are other sights: that last day of judgment, with its everlasting issues; that day unlooked for by the nations, the theme of their derision, when the world hoary with age, and all its many products, shall be consumed in one great flame! How vast a spectacle then bursts upon the eye! What there excites my admiration? what my derision? Which sights gives me joy? which rouses me to exultation?—as I see so many illustrious monarchs, whose reception into the heavens was publicly announced, groaning now in the lowest darkness with great Jove himself, and those, too, who bore witness of their exultation; governors of provinces, too, who persecuted the Christian name, in fires more fierce than those with which in the days of their pride they raged against the followers of Christ.
Devising ghastly punishments for others is old hat for human beings. But it’s something we can and we ought to outgrow. Focusing on restorative rather than retributive justice is better for us, both psychologically and also societally. We’re simply not doing ourselves any favors by continuing to insist that the only — or the best — vision of justice is one that centers on making offenders suffer and then devising more and more types of suffering to heap on them.
Instead, we would do well to start thinking more seriously about restorative approaches to justice, which, as David Cayley defines them, “seek noncustodial settlements; they allow both the offender and the victim much more initiative; they are oriented more to peacemaking than punishment; and they try to mobilize the capacities of families, friends, and local communities in correcting offenders and holding them accountable” (10). This would, of course, require a radical reimagining of our criminal justice system and a full-scale rejection of the knee-jerk policies of the “Tough on Crime” crowd. We’re a long way from really integrating restorative practices into our thinking about criminal justice, but at least we can begin by vocally rejecting the arguments of those who want to consider whether we can find a way to ethically embrace a biotech hellscape for criminals. Clearly, we cannot.
LTMC: As long as we’re discussing Christian morality, let’s not forget that Christ forgave the penitent thief on his right hand who was crucified with him:
39 Now one of the criminals hanging there reviled Jesus, saying, “Are you not the Messiah? Save yourself and us.” 40 The other, however, rebuking him, said in reply, “Have you no fear of God, for you are subject to the same condemnation?41 And indeed, we have been condemned justly, for the sentence we received corresponds to our crimes, but this man has done nothing criminal.” 42 Then he said, “Jesus, remember me when you come into your kingdom.” 43 He replied to him, "Amen I say to you today you will be with me in Paradise." 23:39-43
And of course, my favorite Biblical passage, Matthew 25:34-40:
34 Then shall the King say unto them on his right hand, Come, ye blessed of my Father, inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world: 35 For I was an hungered, and ye gave me meat: I was thirsty, and ye gave me drink: I was a stranger, and ye took me in: 36 Naked, and ye clothed me: I was sick, and ye visited me: I was in prison, and ye came unto me.
37 Then shall the righteous answer him, saying, Lord, when saw we thee an hungred, and fed thee? or thirsty, and gave thee drink? 38 When saw we thee a stranger, and took thee in? or naked, and clothed thee? 39 Or when saw we thee sick, or in prison, and came unto thee?
40 And the King shall answer and say unto them, Verily I say unto you, Inasmuch as ye have done it unto one of the least of these my brethren, ye have done it unto me.
Nobody—nobody—is more so the “least of these” than the incarcerated. Christopher Glazek put it best in his prescient article, Raise the Crime Rate:
Prisoners are not the victims of poor planning (as other progressive reformers have argued)—they are the victims of an ideological system that dehumanizes an entire class of human being and permits nearly infinite violence against it. As much as a physical space, prisons denote an ethical space, or, more precisely, a space where ordinary ethics are suspended.
This ethically exceptional space has created a nightmarish carnival show in corrections facilities across America that has been conveniently shut off from the rest of the world. The absolute horror that gets inflicted upon human beings in prison is the single greatest human rights catastrophe in the First World. And it has been going on for decades. In United States v. Bailey (1980), Justice Blackmun wrote in a dissenting opinion:
The atrocities and inhuman conditions of prison life in America are almost unbelievable; surely they are nothing less than shocking…And the Government concedes: “In light of prison conditions that even now prevail in the United States, it would be the rare inmate who could not convince himself that continued incarceration would be harmful to his health or safety.” […] A youthful inmate can expect to be subjected to homosexual gang rape his first night in jail, or, it has been said, even in the van on the way to jail. Weaker inmates become the property of stronger prisoners or gangs, who sell the sexual services of the victim. Prison officials either are disinterested in stopping abuse of prisoners by other prisoners or are incapable of doing so, given the limited resources society allocates to the prison system. Prison officials often are merely indifferent to serious health and safety needs of prisoners as well.
In Brown v. Plata (2011), the Court described conditions in California’s overcrowded prisons:
Prisoners in California with serious mental illness do not receive minimal, adequate care. Because of a shortage of treatment beds, suicidal inmates may be held for prolonged periods in telephone-booth sized cages without toilets. A psychiatric expert reported observing an inmate who had been held in such a cage for nearly 24 hours, standing in a pool of his own urine, unresponsive and nearly catatonic. …Wait times for mental health care range as high as 12 months.
Prisoners suffering from physical illness also receive severely deficient care. A prisoner with severe abdominal pain died after a 5-week delay in referral to a specialist; a prisoner with “constant and extreme” chest pain died after an 8-hour delay in evaluation by a doctor; and a prisoner died of testicular cancer after a “failure of MDs to work up for cancer in a young man with 17 months of testicular pain.”
In 2007, Kim Shayo Buchanan discussed conditions in women’s prisons:
In the United States, sexual abuse by guards in women’s prisons is so notorious and widespread that it has been described as ‘an institutionalized component of punishment behind prison walls. …[And] although rape by guards is commonplace in U.S. women’s prisons, most custodial sexual abuse takes forms other than outright rape. Prison officials report that “[m]ost allegations involved verbal harassment, improper visual surveillance, improper touching, and/or consensual sex.” More specifically, women prisoners are subjected to sexual comments, groping, and threats of rape; male guards watching them on the toilet or in the shower; physical searches by male guards; demands for sex in exchange for goods or privileges or under threat of sanction; and guards taking advantage of their position to have “consensual” sex with prisoners without overt material exchange.
The saddest part is that everybody knows this is going on. As Andrew Cohen said recently, “It’s fairly easy to get judges to find unconstitutional conditions inside our prisons. The hard part is getting government to do anything about it.”
Ironically, many “law & order” Conservatives often complain about the collapse of Christian values in America. I’m admittedly not a Christian, but according to Christians I know, the single most Christian value is forgiveness. It is embodied in the concept of Grace, which Theologian Robert Farrar Capon described as "indiscriminate compassion." Those who are concerned about the collapse of Christian values in America could reinvigorate Christian values by working to reform our criminal justice system and inject that same “indiscriminate compassion” into our prisons, rather than a system constructed as a living monument to one of the Seven Deadly sins: "a love of justice perverted to revenge and spite.”