Cleansing Fire

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Why Life Incarceration is not the Answer

August 5th, 2018, Promulgated by Diane Harris

Pope Francis’ arguments against any use of the death penalty strongly depend on the assertion that it is possible in this day and time to incarcerate so that the prisoner cannot escape.  Such an allegation is offered without proof, or evidence of expertise in that arena. The conclusion would appear to be a prudential judgment resting on a prudential judgment; therefore, it would seem to make sense to examine the foundational judgment in stating: “The Death Penalty is Inadmissable.”

There are three broad considerations: 1) the big picture, at least at a national and state level, 2) the practical experience in New York State in recent times and 3) the very human underpinning to the presumed efficacy of incarceration.

The US and NYS experience

The Bureau of Justice Statistics (BJS) for the US in 2013 (last year of compiled data available) listed 2,001 records of “AWOL/Escape” among prisoners serving a greater than one year sentence.  More than 2,500 escaped in 2010; more than 3,100 escaped in 2011; and more than 2,500 escaped in 2012. Of those 2,001 escapes in 2013 there were 22 in NYS (actually the total is an improvement from prior years). Obviously, even a low percentage is not insignificant when the escapees are murderers.

But the life and death aspects of these data mean that mere percentage numbers are not arguments for outlawing capital punishment. There is a tendency today to imagine that we have become so smart and so technologically advanced that we can control anything!

  • “In the US, despite an unprecedented level of modern prison construction in the closing decades of the 20th century and the development of increasingly sophisticated security technology, prison escapes are seemingly inexorable,” Elizabeth Bracco and Richard F. Culp wrote in an academic paper published in Corrections Compendium in 2005. “In a correctional setting populated with potential escapees, dependent upon sophisticated and functioning security technology and staffed by rotating shifts of correctional officers of varying levels of skill and experience, the possibility of escapes is omnipresent.”
  • The Washington Post offers the conclusion of British criminologist Sir Leon Radzinowicz, who wrote in “Adventures in Criminology” in 1999:  “As a general rule, it can safely be assumed that cemeteries are the only places which effectively ensure the non-recurrence of escapes.… It is therefore unsound to examine prison escapes in absolute terms and it is much more realistic to talk about ‘tolerable escape rates.’” Tolerable, that is, unless you or a beloved family member or friend are the victims.
  • While it is reported that proportionately fewer escapees flee federal prisons or walled security, nevertheless it is not “zero.” After a prison escape in Michigan, Keramet Reiter, an assistant professor of criminology at University of California at Irvine, said: “This is really unusual … it’s incredibly rare with a prison that has perimeter security.” Yet in 2015 two convicted murders with life sentences escaped  from a NYS high security prison and terrorized upstate New York for over three weeks.

Escape from the Clinton Correctional Facility in 2015

Sweat and Matt

Sweat and Matt

When convicted murderers David Sweat and Richard Matt escaped from the Clinton Correctional Facility in upstate New York on June 6, 2015, using power tools, steam pipes and manhole covers, NY Governor Cuomo said: “This is a crisis situation for the state ….These are dangerous men capable of committing grave crimes again.” At the end of three weeks of search and expense of over a million dollars per day, one of the escapees was dead, and the other hospitalized after being shot twice by police; he eventually recovered to be re-imprisoned.  Only a miracle kept others from being killed or injured in the pursuit. The wilderness area in the Adirondacks is populated with camps and cabins, most of which were not yet opened for the season.

Detail on the Escape from a High Security Prison

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An “external breach” (tunnel exit) was found on a street about 500 feet outside the prison wall. The escapees had planned to be picked up by prison employee, Joyce Mitchell, who is believed to have been influenced by one or both of the prisoners through sexual relationship. Mitchell did not follow through with the pick-up. A second employee, prison guard Gene Palmer admitted he smuggled tools into the prison and did other favors for Richard Matt in exchange for paintings, believed to include a number of political portraits. County Sheriff David Favro concluded multiple people may have assisted Matt and Sweat.

The search continued for the three weeks through many small villages and remote areas until Matt was killed and Sweat was stopped about a mile and a half from the Canadian border. An autopsy of Matt was released on August 6, which revealed he had a blood alcohol level of 0.18%, more than twice the level of intoxication for drunk driving under New York law.

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Governor Cuomo directed Inspector General Catherine Leahy Scott to conduct a thorough investigation to determine all factors potentially involved in the escape of inmates Richard Matt and David Sweat. The Inspector General was to obtain the services of a respected outside expert in corrections and law enforcement on issues such as prison design, operations and security with a view toward identifying how these inmates were able to escape, and recommend any potential reforms and best practices to prevent future incidents.

The Inspector General’s report was released in June 2016 and found “that longstanding, systemic failures in management and oversight by DOCCS enabled two convicted murderers to meticulously orchestrate their escape from a maximum security facility almost in plain sight. The report noted the failures of 20 individual correctional employees, both civilian and uniformed. Excluding Gene Palmer and Joyce Mitchell, no criminal charges were brought against any other prison employee. One was demoted, two suspended pending arbitration, nine returned to work after lesser penalties were applied, and the remainder retired or resigned before being punished. The report was highly critical of a lack of cooperation, and misleading and lying testimony by prison employees.

The Human Condition

It is not really a matter of fault-free security systems, break-through technology, high speed saws, bribing guards or other clever ideas and methods. The reason that escape will always be in the incarceration system is the weakness of the human condition. Whether it is “sexual favors” or financial bribes, or holding prison officials’ family members hostage, or an inmate uprising, there will always be some way to manage the escape because of human foibles, greed, fear or just plain evil.

To prevent legitimate government from using one of the methods given to it by God to provide protection for those under its care is like keeping individuals from protecting themselves and the family in their care. Those who interfere with legitimate methods of protection by denouncing capital punishment should be responsible for the results. In the Sweat / Matt case there could have been many more lives lost over three weeks of pursuit and desperation.

Such realities are the reason that support for (or opposition to) capital punishment has been and should continue to be a matter of prudential judgment. The above comments are offered regarding the following ‘reason’ for the change reported on Zenit 8/2/18 regarding reason #2 for revision to Catechism paragraph 2267:

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8 Responses to “Why Life Incarceration is not the Answer”

  1. avatar SamanthaGillenson says:

    New York State, while it officially has capital punishment still on the books, has not executed anyone since Eddie Lee Mays in 1963 for murder and robbery. Almost ALL of the people executed in New York State since 1900 have been murderers, and dangerous menaces to society if ever given the opportunity to escape.

    https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/List_of_people_executed_in_New_York

    Governor Cuomo, a Catholic in name only if there ever was one, and infamously pro-abortion, as recently lobbied to end the death penalty in New York State in solidarity with Pope Francis:

    https://www.lifesitenews.com/news/pro-abortion-andrew-cuomo-pushes-bill-to-end-death-penalty-in-solidarity-wi?utm_content=buffer7e034&utm_medium=LSN%2Bbuffer&utm_source=facebook&utm_campaign=LSN

    How has life imprisonment worked out for the tax paying citizens of New York, Gov. Cuomo? Not very well, and these criminals who have ruined the lives of so many innocents have forfeited THEIR right to life by the shedding of innocent blood. Justice DEMANDS that these dangerous criminals be given an appropriate punishment according to their crime.

    Life imprisonment is not justice… It is an insult to the loved ones of those killed, and an insult to God’s divine justice.

  2. avatar SamanthaGillenson says:

    Furthermore, Pope Francis doesn’t seem to have done his homework prior to “changing” the Catechism, as the only thing that he cites to support this change is a speech that was given a year before by HIMSELF. Don’t believe me? Look at the official announcement for yourself and check my references:

    http://press.vatican.va/content/salastampa/en/bollettino/pubblico/2018/08/02/180802a.html

    This is an utter travesty that flies in the face of 2000+ years of church teaching.

  3. avatar militia says:

    And not to mention flawed term paper methodology!

  4. avatar christian says:

    Not only to mention the occurrence of prison escape of violent, dangerous felons, but the number of violent, dangerous felons who are paroled back into society to commit the same violent crimes or worse. It is mind boggling why the State of New York, or any State in the U.S., would allow those who are serial rapists, serial murderers, and repeated serial sex offenders back into society again.

    To begin with, it starts with our court system which does not dispense proper punishment to fit the crime. If a criminal has good finances or proper connections, or a combination of the two, he can get his conviction thrown out on technicality, plea deal for a lesser charge, and/or have his sentenced reduced dramatically, or just be reduced to conditional discharge with probation. The criminal, if convicted and sentenced to a prison term, only has to serve 2/3 of his sentence to be up for parole. There are cases where a serial rapist was up for parole after only serving one-third of his reduced sentence.

    Often, you hear the excuse of prison overcrowding or everyone deserves to be given another chance -unfortunately in the case of especially serial offenders, it means being given another chance to rape or kill, and in many cases, torture their victims in additional ways before raping or killing them (or both).

    Years back, there was a story on Dateline, about a man who would marry a woman, take an expensive life insurance policy out on her, and then kill her in some way, trying to make it look like an accident. I believe this man had done this with at least 3 wives, had been prosecuted, convicted, and had been imprisoned, and then was let back into society. This man had a habit of going by different names. The family of his last victim, who I think was number 4, was shocked to find out that he had already committed this crime multiple times before, was convicted and imprisoned, yet let back out into society to continue to repeat the same crime. That was pretty much the theme of this Dateline Special, How could a man who had done this type crime repeatedly, be let out of prison to have the opportunity to repeat this type crime.

    There have been cases of a horrendous, violent crime, usually resulting in death, where the parents or other family members of the loved one, in good faith, chose life imprisonment without the possibility of parole, over the death penalty for the perpetrator of the violent crime. Years later, the law changes, allowing those who would have otherwise received the death penalty, to be allowed the possibility of parole. (In some cases, the parents and loved ones are deceased when these new changes have occurred).
    The case of the strangulation, murder, and rape of Pamela Moss off of Panorama Trail, Penfield in 1962 by James Moore is an example:
    http://www.mpnnow.com/article/20160411/NEWS/160419959

    It all comes down to the values in our society as a whole have changed.

  5. avatar Ginger says:

    One Second After by William R. Forstchen is an excellent fictional book that depicts a world plunged back into the Middle Ages by an EMP.
    One riveting scene is when John Matherson struggles with his decision to kill an escaped prisoner in order to protect the innocent.
    Although the book is fictional, the events described could happen. I believe the death penalty is a last choice to protect innocent lives.
    Never say never in this matter of protecting innocent.

  6. avatar Ben Anderson says:

    https://www.democratandchronicle.com/story/news/politics/albany/2018/08/07/after-dannemora-prison-break-nyers-pay-twice-search-and-now-tv-series/925608002/

    The prison escape in 2015 at the Clinton Correctional Facility in northern New York cost taxpayers at least $23 million in overtime for the three-week manhunt.

    Now, New Yorkers will pay for the television series.

  7. avatar BigE says:

    “The United States may be putting more innocent people to death than previously thought. According to a sweeping new statistical analysis made public today, the rate of wrongful death sentences in the U.S. is probably much higher than experts have estimated.

    Authors of the study say that their “conservative estimate of the proportion of erroneous convictions” is 4.1 percent, or approximately twice the number actually exonerated and set free from death row. This could mean that approximately 120 of the roughly 3,000 inmates on death row in America might not be guilty….”

    http://time.com/79572/more-innocent-people-on-death-row-than-estimated-study/

  8. avatar snowshoes says:

    Yes, and the French translation of the Latin is “inhumaine” or inhumane. I’m no specialist at translation, but those two words, between just those two languages, have a wide variation in meaning. And then there’s that irksome event with the Pope and Ananias and Sapphira… Hmmm.


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