Learning to live in community. What can the debate on the death penalty teach us.


The following are some ideas i shared recently on the death penalty. It appears  in the December edition of the HUMAN DIGEST. Published by Stand up for Jamaica and the Independent Jamaica Council for Human Rights in Jamaica. DJ-Afifa2

A few Mondays ago I visited the Tower Street Adult Correctional prison for the first time. For the first time I saw inside a prison. For the the first time I was sitting in a room with men who had committed all kinds of crime. As I looked around I looked at each man wondering what they had done to be here,  what crime they had committed. Some of the things I was told was so shocking. So painful to hear. I imagined the family of the “victim” I imagined the pain. I tried to imagine how it could feel to live  out my days in a place where everyone else had committed a crime. I tried to imagine the thoughts of the men in prison. I tried to imagine if they felt sorry for what happen. I tried to imagine how they would feel if they were on death row.

One of the guys came up to me and said hi. He was pleasant he asked me my name. He told me what he  did in the prison. He started to tell me why he was in prison. He said he did some very very bad things and he was lucky to get away without harm. I don’t remember his name but I remember him talking to me and how it felt and I remember trying to understand why he ended up in prison. I remember thinking what if he was on death row . Why shouldn’t he get death for the very very bad things that he did? And this is the dilemma with the conversation and the argument around the death penalty. Who deserves to live and who deserves to die? How do we decide what acts deserve the death penalty and can we really trust a justice system to make those decisions?

I don’t believe the question is whether you are for or against the death penalty but what do we do with individuals who violate others in society or individuals who break “rules” ? And if we decide that an “eye for an eye” is the principle, why death?

How often do we ask what happened to that man or woman? He or she was once just a baby. A sweet adorable baby. How often do we question the social political and economic conditions that nurture the kind of behaviour that “violates or breaks rules”? How often do we question the relationship between race, class and perceptions of criminality. Meaning, how often do we think about the ways in which it is much easier for a certain segment of the population to be called criminals as opposed to another segmen? How often do we think about the high degree of social injustice in our society and the negative impacts on the life of individuals. How often do we think about our collective responsibility to healthy communities. Communities with individuals who threat each other with love and respect.

Perhaps we have come to the question of the death penalty because or communities see “individuals” as the problem, not the “community”. Perhaps we have come to the question of the death penalty because the community has not played its role, “the village has not raised the child” and in this case who has committed the crime and who deserves to be punished? And should the punishment be death ? Death to society? Death to the community?

And this again is the problem. Before we get to the manifestation of the problem, and treating the manifestation of the problem what is the problem and where does it start?

There are alternatives to death as a penalty for a crime. Those alternatives are found when we begin to ask more questions about the problem, the nature and dynamic of the problem. I believe that instead of an “eye for eye” we need to create systems that teach us about the value of life and our humanity. The individuals in our community who “violate or break rules” should help us to learn more about how we can be better not teach us about ways we can be exact in delivering justice.

I have a friend who lost someone very close to her. Her friend was murdered. She wants someone to be punished for the crime. She wants to feel like someone is held accountable. Most times I talk to her she feels like the person who took her friend’s life should pay with his or her  life. While I understand her pain and I understand where she is coming from I always ask her “can taking  the life of the person who violated your friend bring back his life?


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