Sunday, August 09, 2009

Should we free dying prisoners?

I always thought that the practice of keeping prisoners shackled as they gave birth was barbaric and could not believe that it went on until 1996 with the now sainted Ann Widdecombe justifying it.

I always think that the punishment part of a prison sentence is being deprived of liberty, of the ability just to nip out whenever you want and of being in charge of your own life. Living in such circumstances would be one of the worst things that could happen to me, restricting the amount of time, to almost next to nothing, that I could spend with the people I loved. Imagine if that happened to you? How would you cope spending 23 hours a day locked up with strangers?

It's right, of course, that we can and should as a society restrict the liberty of people who have committed crimes against society, and that these punishments should be proportionate to the crime - the worse the offence, the longer the sentence. I also readily accept that there are some individuals, thankfully few and far between, whose crimes are so awful that they should never be let out as long as they are considered a risk to the public.

I do wonder, though, whether it's right to keep someone who is in the final stages of a terminal illness in jail, and whether it's right that a politician is the one who has to make the final decision as to whether to let them go. The two recent cases, of the Lockerbie bomber and Ronnie Biggs have made me think about what happens to you if you are not a high profile prisoner and find yourself facing death in prison. Al Megrahi and Biggs are dealt with by two different legal systems, but their final fate is down to the decision of the Scottish Cabinet Secretary for Justice, Kenny MacAskill for Megrahi and Jack Straw, UK Secretary for Biggs.

My instinct is that regardless of the crime that the person has committed, that the compassionate thing to do is to let them free to spend their last days with their families if that's what they want to do. Should that not happen as a matter of course? I can't imagine that anyone in the final stages of a terminal illness is going to pose much of a danger to the public.

I know it's a controversial thing to suggest, and that many victims of crime, especially those who have lost a family member to murder would find it hard to see someone being given in death something they denied to others. I sympathise, of course, and if I were in their position I may feel the same way.

I can't believe that Jack Straw didn't release Biggs two months ago when he was first asked to. There was never any public danger from him and I feel he should have been more compassionate then.

Robert Brown had a point when he accused Kenny MacAskill of grandstanding over his visit to Al-Megrahi. There was no need for him to go, but nor do I feel there is a need for a politician to have the final say over whether someone should be released. They are not going to be making their decision in a vacuum - they are bound to have half a mind to the political consequences of whatever they do.

Shouldn't these decisions be made by an independent body and there be a presumption in favour of release in the final stages of any terminal illness? To me it's what a civilised, compassionate society would do. What do you think?

4 comments:

subrosa said...

Firstly, from a human viewpoint I agree with you but it seems to be far more complex than that in the Megrahi case. Why MacAskill is being criticised for meeting with the man when you say he should be allowed freedom because of his illness, is rather hypocritical. MacAskill has met with everyone connected with this case so why should he have ignored the actual accused?

The Ronnie Biggs case of course is very different. The problem there, as I see it, is that he's stuck two fingers up to the establishment since he escaped. He did wrong but his sentence was excessive as a punishment.

There is an independent body who judge on some cases and that's the Parole Board. Mind you they make errors too then the politicians are held responsible.

Hope you're feeling better now.

(How do you put a post on 'timed'? I have to manually do it if I do an earlier draft. You're too clever at this technology Caron!)

Caron said...

I think when it comes to the end of life, no matter what people have done, they should be treated with compassion and dignity and should be able to spend their final days with their loved ones and in their own way.

What's the point in continuing to punish until the last breath - there's no humanity in that?

subrosa said...

A difficult decision to make Caron. I tend to think some people have no respect for humanity and therefore do horrendous crimes. The wishes of the people who suffered from these crimes have to be taken into consideration too and I certainly wouldn't dare suggest if the victim(s) wanted the perpetator to be locked up forever they were inhuman.

Caron said...

Subrosa, if anyone caused any harm to someone I loved, you can be sure that I would not be well disposed to them being given any leniency at all. But I shouldn't get to decide these things and my judgement, however understandable, would not be objective - that's why we need an independent, compassionate, civilised judicial system.

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