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Out of Sight, Out of Mind

Are They Really Opposed to the Death Penalty?

by KENNETH E. HARTMAN

They stand outside in the night holding candles, singing songs of protest, holding up photos of condemned men, and decrying the brutality of state-sanctioned execution. The next day, at the inevitable press conference, after the ritualized lamentations for the now deceased prisoner, they offer up life without the possibility of parole sentences as the humane alternative to lethal injections or, astonishingly, the occasional firing squad. They claim to be opposed to the death penalty, but are they, really?

A traditional death sentence entails a comparatively short stay in prison, in specialized units and, almost always, in a private cell. People from all over the world, literally, will take up your cause and lobby on your behalf. A bevy of celebrities will champion your case in league with numerous well-funded national and international organizations. Your appeals are mandatory and subjected to the highest scrutiny. High-powered attorneys will volunteer to represent your interests. Assuming you lose all your appeals, you will die in a horrific medical procedure that lasts all of 15 or 20 minutes.

Life without the possibility of parole, the other death penalty, has a radically different set of realities affixed to it. Because it really does mean life without parole, you will remain in prison until you die, however long that takes. You will serve your time in the most violent and repressive of prisons crammed into a cell designed for one person with whoever happens to be pushed in the door. No lawyers will volunteer to help you, and your appeals are neither mandatory nor subjected to any heightened scrutiny. You will not receive letters of encouragement and visits from supporters in this country, let alone from around the world. Those well-funded national and international organizations, fronted by familiar, famous faces, will not work to overturn your sentence. In fact, they will lobby against your interests.

At some points, decades later, after living in atrocious conditions and growing old in prison (a fate worse that death, I assure you), you will die. It will not be under the watchful eyes of a worldwide audience of concerned activists. Rather, you will die alone in a nondescript, poorly staffed and managed, prison infirmary. Pain medication will be provided only begrudgingly, if at all, by medical staff who view you as their enemy.

The upshot of both sentences is death at the hands of the government; they are equally death sentences by any rational measure. To advocate for one and claim to be opposed to the death penalty is, at best, delusional. I am reminded of self-described vegetarians who eat fish and eggs. They, too, practice a willful hypocrisy.

We who are banished to the concrete and razor wire empire for the duration of our natural lives, to the much larger if less talked about death row (more than 41,000 versus about 3,300) are not able to talk directly to the quasi-abolitionists. They don’t come in to see us. If we could, the conversation might get a little heated. Are they aware that their condoning of life without the possibility of parole has resulted in a huge increase in this other death row’s population? Have they considered the “life” a prisoner will lead while serving this other death penalty?

They argue that ending the death penalty in this county must be done incrementally; it cannot happen in one fell swoop. So, to end one form of the death penalty, they are willing to condemn tens of thousands to a brutal, slow execution done quietly, behind the gun towers and electric fences inside maximum-security prisons. This is just another version of self-deluding, willful hypocrisy.

Are they really opposed to the death penalty? No, they just want it done out of sight and out of mind.

KENNETH E. HARTMAN has served more than 30 continuous years in the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation on a life without the possibility of parole sentence. He is the founder and executive director of “The Other Death Penalty Project,” a grassroots effort to end the sentence of life without the possibility of parole. He is also an award-winning writer and the author of “Mother California: A Story of Redemption Behind Bars” (Atlas & Co. 2009). For more information see www.theotherdeathpenalty.org or www.facebook.com/theotherdeathpenalty. Ken can be contacted directly at kennethehartman@hotmail.com.