Opinion

Execution not the only form of prison death

The watchtower at a California state prison (Photo: Joseph Sohm, via Shutterstock)

Fifteen years into a 41 years-to-life sentence, I arrived at San Quentin — the home of Death Row. I immediately noticed the difference between the treatment of condemned people and of general population people, like myself. Anytime condemned people left their cell they were shackled at the waist and feet. As they moved through the corridors and walkways, all general population people were told to face the wall.

We were told not to look at them.

In California, there are a few different types of death sentences: the death penalty (immediate death), life without the possibility of parole (slow death, known as LWOP)), and life sentences (possible death).

The moratorium of the death penalty was an important first step, but more needs to be done

California Gov. Gavin Newsom recently enacted a moratorium on the death penalty, or immediately putting someone to death. I believe he did this not just as an act of compassion for the people on Death Row, but also because he did not want it on his conscience. He had stated he could not preside over any murders during his term as governor.

Meanwhile, the federal government announced last week that it would resume capital punishment, two decades after having stopped the inhumane practice. In announcing this, the executions of five people were immediately scheduled.

As a formerly incarcerated person who was facing the death penalty, I empathize with Newsom’s sentiments. Not only with the compassion for the people on death row, but also with the governor not wanting a murder on his conscience, whether legal or illegal.

Death sentences and life sentences are not different from murder in the streets. Whether it was a legal hanging, firing squad, electric chair; the gas chamber, or lethal injection, a human being will be killed. I have deep guilt and remorse for what I’ve done. Not a day goes by that I don’t think about the crimes I’ve committed, the harm I’ve caused and the lives I’ve ruined. I understand the governor not wanting to live with that.

When I committed my crime I was dealing with anger, fear, and trauma. Those feelings I felt are not excuses to commit a crime or harm someone. So why, as a society, are we willing to let our policy decisions be prompted by those very same feelings when we sentence people to die by execution or a slow death in prison?

We focus on the crime to fuel our own fear, rage and anger against them, which allows us to view them as somehow less than human.

The moratorium of the death penalty was an important first step, but more needs to be done. We need to work toward a moratorium of all death penalties – including the slow death of life without parole.

The only way to be able to put someone to death is to dehumanize them and see them as less than a person. Sadly, I categorized the human beings I harmed as enemies and not seeing their humanity allowed me to commit those crimes. We do the same when we sentence a “monster” to death. We can’t look at their humanity. We cannot look at a person’s humanity when we sentence them to die of old age in cell with a life sentence or a sentence of life without the possibility of parole.

We focus on the crime to fuel our own fear, rage and anger against them, which allows us to view them as somehow less than human. These sentencing policies are enacted because of the same sentiments and elements of dehumanization I utilized when I committed murder. With such parallels to murder in the streets, how can we continue these crimes against humanity and society?

It is reported that “88% of criminologists do not believe the death penalty is an effective deterrent.” If the actual death penalty is not a deterrent, why do we continue the other slower death sentences of life and LWOP under the guise of crime deterrence?

Many believe that politicians support the death penalty to appear tough on crime and to appeal to their constituents’ fears, anger and trauma associated with crime. There is a definite need for separation of a person responsible for harm from society when that person is a danger to society and themselves. However, going so far as sentencing them to die is akin to the same knee-jerk reaction to anger, fear, and trauma that fueled my crimes.

Looking back at the time I committed my crimes I wish I had acted in a more humane and compassionate way. I wish I had the emotional intelligence to manage my feelings and not let them give me the ability to dehumanize people. I’m sorry for what I’ve done. My crimes are deplorable and I know it; and I want better for our society.

Editor’s Note: Philip Melendez is a former California state prison inmate. 


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