Re: AltInst: An Alternative to the Death Penalty

From: Robert E. Lewis <>
Date: Tue May 01 2001 - 18:06:13 PDT

Speculative fiction writer Robert A. Heinlein wrote about a
future society that dealt with those criminals who would not
submit to psychological readjustment (brainwashing/surgery)
to correct their antisocial habits by exiling them to
"Coventry," a region walled off from human contact by some
sort of force field. His story, written from the point of
view of a convict dispatched to the zone, mainly addressed
the practical shortcomings of anarchist idealism, though
it's practical value as a "humane" treatment of prisoners.

A few of the shortcomings I see to sending to a "Coventry"
totally isolated from the rest of society are:

* If it is truly isolated from the "civilized" world, are
you going to make certain they are fed? Without the
"authoritarian figures, guards and systems," how are you
going to make certain that any food you do send in is
"fairly" distributed? How are you going to monitor the
internal population numbers, to know whether you are sending
in too little food, or wasting too much? Do you expect
people who have proven incapable of successfully fitting in
to current society to make successful farmers on the other
side, especially if they do not receive aid, training,
materials, weather news, etc. from the outside world? Is it
more humane to dump people in a place where they may starve
to death?

* Again, if it is truly isolated from the "civilized" side,
you simply don't know to what fate you are sending the
condemned. Society might feel better, pretending its hands
weren't stained with blood, but if you shove a prisoner
through the gates and into (very likely) the hands of an
organized and unsupervised gang of the most violent and
incorrigable sociopaths, what is likely to become of him? I
think it is naive to say that this penal colony will be
"without the authoritarian figures." The authoritarian
figures will be there, and they will be the most sadistic
and violent of those dispatched there. Likely outcomes for
a new prisoner, it seems to me, are (absent starvation):
slavery, torture, food for the strong? Is that really a
more humane way to treat these people?

* And whether or not that is the *actual* fate of the
prisoner, allowing his mind to speculate over what horrors
may await him across the line is arguably cruel and
oppressive treatment. Your suggestion appears to apply not
only to those especially violent murderers on death row, but
also to include tossing non-violent habitual offenders into
some sort of unkown hell without any protection whatsoever
from the civilized restraint provided by prison guards.

* Some of the people you send over might actually like it,
and do well there. The particularly ruthless are likely to
prosper in Conventry. Is that "fair" to anyone? Is it just
for the criminal whose behavior in one society is rewarded
with the chance to claw his way up to the position of a
chieftan or warlord in another society? Is it fair to
lesser, weaker incorrigables who fall under his power,
without the mitigating effects of the civilized world? Is
it fair to the victims (or survivors of the victims), if
word does get back that the fiends that inflicted such pain
are now living it up in some sort of Dark Ages tribal

Finally, the idea of using condemned prisoners for
scientific (in this case, sociology) experiments smacks of
the experimentation done by the Nazis (albeit there often
done with prisoners who had not committed any criminal act
other than being the wrong race), and I think most
scientists would (rightly, I think) find it unethical.

(While I'll try to avoid getting into a pro-anti-death
penalty argument here, I would like to point out that
executing someone as a consequence of *their* actions, after
that person has received due process through the courts
(typically about twelve years of trials and appeals, in the
"bloodthirsty" state of Texas in which I reside), when the
condemned had a reasonable expectation that execution would
be the consequence of his actions, is *not* the logical or
moral equivalent of the premeditated murder an innocent

-- Robert E. Lewis

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Received on Tue May 1 18:15:18 2001

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