I find it ironic that a few members of our legislature who support capital punishment have chosen to focus on conditions of confinement in prison as part of their flawed rationale for not repealing Connecticut’s death penalty. Life in prison without parole – the most severe penalty that could be imposed on a convicted murderer if the death penalty is abolished – has been coming under fire as insufficient punishment.
“A Country Club”, “A Walk in the Park” and “Three Hots and a Cot” are terms flippantly used to describe prison life. Those legislators should know better.
After more than 22 years working in our state Department of Correction, including a stint as Warden of the New Haven Correctional Center, I am in a good position to clarify the facts about incarceration.
The argument of those who want to keep the death penalty goes something like this: life without the possibility of parole should be re-designed to confine inmates to their cells and feed them food that doesn’t taste like food, while not allowing them to participate in prison programs, and forcing them to live in virtual total isolation for the duration of their sentence.
We tried this experiment already when we first built prisons in this country over 200 years ago. It was called the Pennsylvania System, developed by the Quakers in Philadelphia, which isolated inmates from virtually all forms of human contact. Ultimately, it was deemed to be an utter failure, and even the Quakers recognized their mistakes. In that system, which was designed to cause inmates to reflect on their transgressions, many became violent from the degree of isolation, and many more committed suicide.
Even the most conservative correctional administrator today will acknowledge that inmate involvement in prison programming is one of the most important factors to consider in keeping a correctional facility safe. When inmates are properly classified, they can be involved without causing harm to themselves or to others.
Correctional Officers will tell you that the most important thing to them is to be secure in the knowledge that they will return safely to their homes and families at the end of their shift. Keeping inmates busy and occupied is one of the best tools toward reaching this end – even for murderers. Additionally, there are federal mandates regarding conditions of confinement that must be respected to avoid conditions that would be considered cruel and unusual.
In my experience, life in prison is an incredibly severe sentence – the most severe penalty that a just society should impose. Those serving such a sentence are enduring a slow death. The death penalty debate has far too many more relevant issues worthy of attention. To raise the issue of life without parole not being enough punishment to justify abolition of the death penalty at this point in the debate takes the focus off the truly important issues.
As a lifelong citizen of Connecticut, I am embarrassed that we are still among the ranks of states and countries that hold on to a broken system of capital punishment that does not make us any safer, but instead puts innocent lives at risk of executions and wastes millions of dollars. We are allowing the acts of a few depraved individuals to influence our public policy. Our most primitive impulse for retribution should not guide our response. I hope and pray that we can do the right thing and repeal the death penalty now.
William L. Tuthill, retired assistant deputy Corrections Commissioner.