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Lisa N Guenther
Vanderbilt University, Department of Philosophy
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Last week, I suggested that there was no meaningful difference between a “botched” execution and a “proper” one. Today, I will develop this claim and offer some phenomenological support for it. The analysis that follows is rooted in my present geopolitical context – Tennessee – but the issues apply to... Continue reading
Last week's botched execution in Ohio has raised questions for many people about the ethics of experimenting with untested lethal injection protocols. But it’s not clear that the standard drug protocol is any less cruel, even if it is less unusual. On Thursday, January 16, Dennis McGuire was injected with... Continue reading
Yes, this is a very serious problem. Some people call it "secondary trauma": There's a great interview with the former executioner in Texas in Herzog's Into the Abyss (it's one of the only scenes in that film that I really liked). The ex-executioner of Virginia is also pretty awesome: There's also the issue of trauma for family members of the executed, and for members of the community more generally. I will write about this more in the weeks to come, but here's a statement by a community member in Nashville FYI:
Medical doctors don't generally participate in executions in the US! The AMA issued a statement against the participation of physicians in any part of the execution process: But the North Carolina Supreme Court ruled against the NC Medical Board's ban on physician participation in executions in 2009: (They still haven't managed to execute anyone because of legal challenges to the execution protocol, etc.) Execution drugs are usually administered by a correctional officer -- yet another reason why the whole process is so problematic.
Last week, I wrote about Tennessee's unprecedented push to execute 10 prisoners, beginning on January 15, 2014. Today, I'm happy to report that the January 15 execution of Billy Ray Irick has been postponed to October 7, 2014. Why? Because of legal challenges to Tennessee's new lethal injection protocol. Next... Continue reading
Wow, what an amazing story -- thank you for sharing this. Yes, I agree that jury selection is a huge issue, and so is prosecutorial misconduct. This four-part series on prosecutorial misconduct in Arizona found that it played a role in 50% of all capital cases. That's above and beyond the perfectly legal power of prosecutors to exclude someone from the jury because they were rude enough to correct the prosecutor when he is actively misleading the jurors!
I think it's important to engage with the views of people who have actually lost a loved one to murder, many of whom have found no solace in the execution of the convicted murderer and a complicated sense of pain that only compounds their loss. See, for example:,,,
This is a fair point. But I think it also raises philosophical and political questions about the sense in which state execution *is* brought about by a human agent or agents. On one hand, a small group of human agents plan, prepare, and carry out executions. These include the executioner(s), the warden, the correctional officers who supervise death watch and bring the prisoner to the gurney or the chair. They also include, less directly, the attorney general who requests an execution date, the judge who grants it, the prosecutor who asked for the death penalty, the jury who sentenced the prisoners, the voters who support capital punishment, the "tough on crime" candidates who endorse them, and most broadly, the public that may or may not vote, but that implicitly supports the death penalty by not opposing it. Lots of human agents there, very few (if any) of whom would regard them as the agent of a homicide. Because one of the conditions under which "good" people support capital punishment is by displacing their own individual agency onto "the state," understood not as a human agent but as an impersonal dispenser of justice. By not recognizing their own role as agents of legalized homicide, they can maintain an absolute distinction between murder and execution. This is a distinction that, while fueled by intense emotions (as we can see from the comments above), falls apart under closer scrutiny. Who exactly commits the act of homicide? Is it the executioner? No, they're just performing a service to the state. That's one of the reasons why those who are directly involved in carrying out an execution are guaranteed anonymity; they are not supposed to be acting on their own behalf as individual agents, but rather on behalf of the state. Who is the state? Is it you and me, understood as individual human agents? No, we're just innocent, law-abiding citizens. *We* don't kill people, *they* do! The violence of execution as an act of homicide is effaced by this ambiguity of agency, but a trace of this violence remains on the death certificate that baldly states: homicide.
Today, The Tennessean newspaper reported that the state plans to execute 10 people beginning in the new year ("TN makes unprecedented push to execute 10 killers"). This is almost double the number of people executed in Tennessee over the past 40 years. While it may seem hyperbolic to describe these... Continue reading
Earlier this week, U.S. District Court Judge Thelton E. Henderson ruled that prisoners on hunger strike in California may be force-fed, even if they have signed an advance directive to refuse medical resuscitation. Joyce Hayhoe, a spokesperson for California Correctional Health Care Services, commented on the decision: “It's better to... Continue reading
Today was a big day for criminal justice in the US. Attorney General Eric Holder announced a ""Smart On Crime" plan which includes asking prosecutors to remain silent on the amount of drugs involved in non-violent, low-level drug offenses in order to avoid triggering mandatory minimum sentences: "For example, in... Continue reading
What do fast food workers and prisoners at Pelican Bay share in common? I don’t mean: How are they similar, or how can they be reduced to the same thing? I mean: What are their common interests, common struggles, common insights, and common strategies? And how does the sharing of... Continue reading
Yes, this is a great point. It makes me think of a film that John Protevi recommended months ago, Bastards of the Party, which is about the criminalization of organizations like the Black Panthers through COINTELPRO, etc., and the emergence of the Bloods and the Crips in the wake of what I think we could call a counter-insurgency against black radical politics. No surprise that gangs should re-politicize themselves as street organizations and reclaim this history, as well as creating new forms of political action.
On July 8, over 30,000 prisoners across California launched the largest hunger strike in state history. Now, three weeks later, over 600 prisoners continue to refuse meals, in spite of direct acts of retaliation by the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation (CDCR). Hunger strikers report being locked in their... Continue reading
Statements and pictures from inside Pelican Bay and Corcoran, posted at Solitary Watch:
On July 8, 30,000 people joined together across racial lines to participate in the largest hunger strike in California history. These people are prisoners at Pelican Bay, Corcoran, and other California prisons. Their current strike action renews a two-year peaceful protest against conditions of extreme isolation, arbitrary punishment, Kafka-esque policies,... Continue reading
The art of letter-writing is dead – except in prison. While people on the outside exchange staccato texts and tweets, people on the inside still compose long letters by hand or on typewriters. They write with their whole hand, not just with their thumbs. We shouldn’t get too misty-eyed about... Continue reading
Totally! Thank you both for the suggestions.
There’s a nice little experiment undertaken by Christopher Chabris and Daniel Simons at Harvard University in which subjects were asked to count the number of times a basketball was passed back and forth in a short video. Half of the subjects tested were so absorbed in their assigned task that... Continue reading
I grant you the point about Berlin! I'll even withdraw my own superficial reflections on Berlin if it will help to re-focus the discussion on my main point, which is to propose decarceration as a project of post-conflict reconstruction in the US.
But just in case you're still stuck on Berlin, compare these figures: The incarceration rate for the US is 716 people per 100,000, the highest in the world. The incarceration rate in Germany is 80 per 100,000, number 166 in the world. That's almost 9 times more people in prison in the US than in Germany. No amount of cool scenes in Brooklyn or Austin should distract us from this point, and from the effect that carceralization has on public space in the US more generally.
OK, so there's a light-hearted, off-the cuff point in this blog post (Berlin is awesome, why can't I stay here forever?) and also a serious point, which I fear is getting lost here. My serious point is that the US is a carceral society with a history of unresolved, and largely unrecognized conflicts, war zones, histories of atrocity, and geographies of destruction and abandonment. What if we imagined decarceration as a project of post-conflict reconstruction for the US? Of course, first we would have to recognize the multiple conflicts that shape the US, past and present. Conflicts along class lines and race lines, conflicts that have materialized -- but also effaced themselves -- as "good neighbourhoods" and "bad neighbourhoods," as "gang violence" and "police brutality," as "upper and lower decile schools." What if we re-interpreted all of these classic topoi of US cultural space as signs of a failed reconstruction project? Really, I'm just repeating and recontexualizing Du Bois's point in _Black Reconstruction_. But this is a point that we really need to grapple with! Forget Berlin (for a moment). Think about the US, not as having cities that are just as awesome as Berlin, or as having invested a bunch of money (and reaped enormous profits, BTW) to make Berlin what it is today. Think about the US as a landscape that is scarred by unresolved conflict, and what it would take to repair that landscape. Or even to notice it, and to name it as such.
I don't wish to reduce the complexities of social, political, and economic life in Berlin (or in the US, for that matter) to babies splashing in a fountain (or the lack thereof). I take your point that there are serious challenges to social equality and well-being in Berlin, and I welcome your detailed sketch of some of these challenges. My aim was not to show that Berlin is perfect and the US is not (although it's tempting, I admit...). My aim is rather to suggest that we could understand decarceration as a project of post-conflict resolution in the US, and that Berlin could be an interesting model or point of inspiration for this project. Not a model in the sense of a blueprint for action (that would be ridiculous -- Berlin is a city, the US is a nation state; the social, economic, and political histories are totally different, if also intertwined; the structure of the US prison industrial complex is different from both the carceral formations of the DDR and the Third Reich; Berlin is not perfect; etc etc). I mean rather a model in the sense of embodying, or at least gesturing towards, certain possibilities for inhabiting social space, reconstructing a public domain, and supporting the enjoyment of a life in common with others. In spite of all the problems here, Berlin seems -- to this visitor, at least -- to sustain a robust sense of public space, which is remarkable given the comparatively recent histories of conflict and division. To quote Wendy Brown, "I want this for us” (States of Injury, 75). But I also want to experiment with the possibilities for thinking of the US as a war zone in need of post-conflict reconstruction. This is a perspective that is invisible to most Americans, but obvious from the perspective of black radical politics. COINTELPRO was an undeclared (or rather, covertly-declared) war on black radical political groups, such as the Black Panthers. This conflict was "resolved" through the surveillance, assassination, and imprisonment of hundreds of black political prisoners during the 60s and 70s, and continuing to this day. See, for example, the Jericho Movement, which defines its goal as "gaining recognition of the fact that political prisoners _and prisoners of war_ exist inside of the United States, despite the United States’ government’s continued denial ... and winning amnesty and freedom for these political prisoners": (A lot more could be said here, and I hope to follow up on this in another post.) So what would it mean, and what would it take, for more Americans to share this perspective on their own history, as a history of conflicts that have been "resolved" in repressive ways (that make the conflict disappear as such), and departing from which we have not yet reconstructed a meaningful sense of life in common? What would it mean to re-imagine public education as a project of post-conflict reconstruction for the US? Public health care as a project of post-conflict reconstruction for the US? Decarceration a project of post-conflict reconstruction for the US? And yes, even babies in fountains as a project of post-conflict reconstruction for the US.
So I’m sitting here in Berlin, thinking WTF? 25 years ago, this was a divided city. 70 years ago, it was part of the Third Reich. Today, it is a place where art and culture flourish, where you can take public transit everywhere from the Wannsee to Potsdam (with your... Continue reading