“It’s Easy”

Like many people, I was shocked to hear about the death of Justice Scalia. After several days, I realized how complicated his death is from a legal standpoint, and the more I read and hear about him, the more contradictions I find. It has been heartening to hear about his friendship with Justice Ruth Bader Ginsberg and how it has endured across a huge political divide. I keep hearing about his charm, his wit, his humor, his writing ability and his legal brilliance. He served on the court with distinction for decades. I am sorry about his death, but I am relieved that he will no longer negatively effect so many people, particularly people on death row with his vociferous defense of the death penalty. Asked about what it was like to rule on death penalty cases, he responded, “The death penalty? Give me a break. It’s easy.” Given our horribly broken criminal justice system and its accompanying racist policies, I do not understand how anyone could be so cavalier about anything as serious and tragic as capital punishment. In my last blog, I wrote about people in the “tall tower” and how often they are disconnected from the world of impoverished communities and people of color. Wealth, power and privilege create these disconnections. Misinformation, prejudice and judgment often follow. It seems to me that Antonin Scalia lived in the tall tower—far removed from the realities of people in prisons and on death row.

Two of my heroes are Bryan Stevenson and Michelle Alexander. Stevenson wrote Just Mercy: A Story of Justice and Redemption, and he created The Equal Justice Initiative where he represents people in Alabama on death row, many who are innocent. He represents children who are incarcerated, sometimes as young as nine or ten, and who have been sentenced to life without parole. Many of his stories are chilling. Michelle Alexander, author of The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness, gives us new language and understanding about the tragedy of the United States becoming the world’s biggest jailor, and how our prison populations reflect the new form of racial control. She sheds light on how our prison system is creating an American caste system. They both work tirelessly for justice.

Bill Moyers interviewed Stevenson and Alexander together.  

Moyers asked Stevenson, “Why is it that capital punishment has become so symbolic of what you see as the crisis in American justice and American life?”  Stevenson replied,

“It shapes all of criminal justice policy. It’s in the only country where you have the death penalty that you can have life without parole for someone who writes bad checks. Somebody else who steals a bicycle. And so it shapes the way we think about punishment. You know, we’ve gotten very comfortable with really harsh and excessive sentences. And I think the death penalty permits that. But I also think it really challenges us, if we will really execute innocent people. We’ve had 130 people in this country who’ve been exonerated, proven innocent while on death row. For every 8 people who have been executed, we’ve identified one innocent person. If we will tolerate that kind of error rate in the death penalty context, it reveals a whole lot about the rest of our criminal justice system and about the rest of our society.”

Allowing the death penalty makes our society more punitive. Our prison policies are not based on the assumption that people are basically good and make mistakes. We don’t use prisons for the sole purpose of rehabilitation. We punish. We punish severely. We still have more than 80,000 people in solitary confinement, many of them children. Women and children are especially vulnerable to rape, and pregnant women are treated horribly in many cases. At this point, we make it very hard for people to put their lives back together when they are released by restricting access to federal housing and food subsidies, restricting licenses and student loans and by providing inadequate support for finding sustainable jobs. There is talk of reinstating Pell grants for people behind bars, but far more needs to be done about more comprehensive education. I taught in the only high school completion program beyond GED in the federal system. Without the right kind of support, returning citizens are vulnerable to homelessness, unemployment, debtor’s prison and what Michelle Alexander calls “a lifelong underclass.” Many states prohibit these citizens from serving on juries or even voting. They are vulnerable to recidivism.

When I was writing a blog about one of my students on June 15, 2015 called A Ruling Passion: Abolishing the Death Penalty, I learned about a national organization called Conservatives Concerned About the Death Penalty. It was reassuring to read about their concern and political action. Helen Prejean wrote in Dead Man Walking, “Government…can’t be trusted to control its own bureaucrats or collect taxes equitably or fill a pothole, much less decide with of its citizens to kill.” The death penalty  is not only complicated, but it results in tragedies of immense proportions, especially among minorities. It is devastating to the families of people who are killed. It provides a slippery slope into more and more damaging and punitive policies, and it should never be described as easy in any context.

A Ruling Passion: Abolishing the Death Penalty

Mr. Walls was my student at the end of his very long sentence, finishing his last high school credits and feeling grateful to be leaving prison with a diploma. On the first day of my Civics class, he grabbed a front row seat and did far more than the assigned work. One day he spoke to me in the hall about his interest in the abolition of capital punishment, asking me if he could address the class. He got to know people well when delivering books to people on Death Row in another institution. “Most of them were poor and black,” he told us. He went on to argue that the death penalty solved nothing: it did not deter crime, it did not bring the victims back, and it added layers and layers of loss and grief to the families and loved ones of the people who were executed. He talked to anyone or any group who would listen: he wrote letters to the editor and letters to legislators. He worked on this issue all the time. I called it his “ruling passion.”

News of Nebraska outlawing capital punishment is welcome, as is the continuing conversation about the efficacy of lethal injections and the spotlight on what happens to people when it goes wrong. I am heartened by knowing that other states are considering a ban on what Mr. Walls called “killing people legally.” Innocence projects around the country are discovering just how many people are innocent; the fact that we still kill innocent people is chilling. I am also encouraged to read information from Conservatives Concerned About the Death Penalty. Marc Hyden, the national coordinator, and other right-leaning opponents have been persistent for years in claiming that capital punishment is “out of line with the conservative ideas around respecting human life, upholding fiscal responsibility and limiting the scope and power of the government.” [1]

Keeping people on Death Row and carrying out capital punishment raises other questions. In an article from Harper’s magazine, Kenneth E. Hartman writes about his experiences of Christmas in prison from his early years in the 1980’s when even the guards got into the spirit of celebration with inmates. He then traces his holiday experiences through the next decades when not only did prison populations swell to unbelievable levels, but punitive attitudes grew to new and cruel heights. Hartman says the new philosophy of corrections is a “more aggressive approach to crime and criminals that holds that rehabilitation to be both pointless and fruitless.” In other words, these are throwaway people beyond any redemption.

Sent to a new facility, Hartman asks a staff member if the canteen could sell eggnog, something he had enjoyed during the holidays in another prison. The staff member says it would be impossible and asks, “What would the victims think?” Hartman replies that he doesn’t know. [2]

Exactly. No one knows what victims think or feel because only a very few are part of the process. If offenders and victims were given a chance to talk face to face, would each victim or member of victims’ families all want the person put to death? Would they want people on Death Row to suffer terribly every day for the rest of their lives? Or, would they want the space and opportunties for them to heal through the process of facing and taking responsibility for their crimes, thereby recovering their full humanity?

I am impressed with the conservative groups who are working to abolish the death penalty because it interferes with their core values. It speaks of their integrity to match actions with beliefs. People who want capital punishment and work hard to keep it going, even in the face of the recent horrors with lethal injections gone terribly wrong, need to be able to say that it is perfectly acceptable to kill people who might be innocent; be able to say that it is acceptable to kill people because they are too poor to hire a good lawyer; and be able to say that it is acceptable to mete out the death penalty on people of color far more than to white people. American citizens need to recognize—and honor–the 8th Amendment, which prohibits cruel and unusual punishment, including torture.

In an article in the New York Times called The Radical Humaneness of Norway’s Halden Prison by Jessica Benko, I was struck by the stark contrast of Norway’s highest security prison lying in the middle of blueberry fields, where the people inside are allowed fresh air and sunlight every day. We have the grim situation in this country where 80,000 people live in solitary confinement, many not seeing anything other than a small patch of sky for decades. Inmates in Norway are treated with compassion and respect, and the goal is to do as much as possible to prepare people to get out. Benko at the New York Times interviewed Ragmar Kristofferson, an anthropologist who teaches in a correctional training facility. “If you treat people badly, it’s a reflection on yourself,” he says. “In officer-training school,” he goes on to explain, “guards are taught that treating inmates humanely is not something they should do for inmates but they should do for themselves.” [3]

In Norway, if someone does something terrible, he or she is not automatically a terrible person. In the United States, if you make a mistake and commit a crime in this country today, you become that mistake—and can lose your life.  If we treat people humanely and with respect, they tend to respond humanely and respectfully. If more people could personally know and have relationships with people facing the death penalty, I think our attitudes would drastically change. Our current ruling passion in many parts of the country is to punish—and punish severely with strong voices fanning the flames of revenge and retribution. The problem of obtaining drugs to execute people is creating conversations in a few states to bring back the gas chamber, the electric chair and even—the firing squad. The violence toward people behind bars with very long sentences for non-violent crimes, the murders of black people by police, the 80,000 people in solitary confinement and our thirst for the death penalty are all part of our retributive thinking. That thinking needs to be balanced by more voices of reason, compassion and mercy. Abolishing the death penalty would support offenders’ families and it would support victims’ families if they were part of the process. If we could make our policies more compassionate and do it for ourselves as Norway does, it would move us all into a more humane country.


1. Khan, Naureen, With Nebraska Leading, Conservatives Reconsider the Death Penalty, Aljazeera America, June 2, 2015.

2. Hartman, Kenneth E., Christmas in Prison: Greeting the Holidays in an Age of Mass Incarceration. Harper’s Magazine, December, 2014.

3. Benko, Jessica, The Radical Humaneness of Norway’s Halden Prison, The New York Times, March 26, 2015.