Saturday, 5 June 2010

"Kill violent people, bring back capital punishment"

Now that we have a 'centre, yeah right' government committed to considering ACT's 'three strikes and you're in for life' policy for violent offenders, maybe Garth McVicar will reissue his call for Arizona-style army surplus tent prisons.

Perhaps we'll see more bumper stickers like those produced by Carterton's Mayor, Gary McPhee -"Kill violent people, bring back capital punishment".

McPhee either has a great sense of humour or was blissfully unaware of the irony. He said at the time that it's not the American justice system he wants to copy but China's – ie where there are 68 capital crimes - over half of which are non-violent offences. He also said NZ had moved too far to the political Left, so will John Key's soft focus coalition go far enough to the Right to satisfy the law and order brigade?

A while back a circular email was extolling the virtues of tent prisons introduced by Sherriff Joe Arpaio in Maricopa County, Arizona. Lo and behold, a Fox News item appeared on NZ television over the holidays which reported on Arpaio's latest tactic– a reality game show aimed at luring criminals out of hiding with the promise of fame and fortune.

It's not surprising that Arizona, the US state with most people on death row, should have spawned a law enforcement officer like Arpaio. An Irish judge said of him that "he gloated over the inhumane treatment he dishes out to his inmates" and "appeared to take a chillingly sadistic pleasure in his role as incarcerator."

Arpaio forces prisoners to wear pink underwear, allegedly to prevent theft. He's even extended his 'pink' theme into handcuffs. As a sideline, he flogs these items off to his adoring fans. Like his real estate deals, Arpaio's sale of these 'collectables' has been the subject of legal scrutiny.

He's an enthusiastic advocate of a 'restraint chair' the use of which has been condemned by Amnesty International and in which one remand prisoner died and a paraplegic's neck was broken.
The black and white striped pyjamas that members of his chain gangs (for men, women and juveniles) are required to wear are uncomfortably reminiscent of those worn by Nazi concentration camp inmates.

And then there are his army surplus tent prisons which Sensible Sentencing Trust spokesperson McVicar wants to see in NZ. In Arizona, the temperatures in these tents can reach 150 degrees F - hot enough to cause brain damage or death - not that Arpaio would lose any sleep over that possibility.

As another way of 'saving taxpayers' dollars', he limits prisoners' meals to two a day at a cost of around US30c. He denies them coffee and salt; the former, because he claims it causes violence and the latter, because it saves around US$20k a year. Given the body's need for salt in extreme temperatures, it might actually be in the hope that some prisoners will die and save even more tax dollars. Given he serves out of date, oxidized food, death by diet in Arpaio's jails is not a remote possibility.

To put Arpaio's workhouse–style parsimony into perspective, lawsuits have cost Maricopa County over $40 million in settlement claims so far during Arpaio's tenure. Many other law suits are pending and he's also facing a class-action lawsuit for violation of constitutional rights brought by the American Civil Liberties Union on behalf of remand prisoners.

Some people argue that his excesses are worthwhile because he has reduced crime but there is no evidence that his policies do anything of the sort.  This Hero of the Right has been responsible for the deaths in custody of a mentally handicapped man, a blind man and a drug addict who was in withdrawal and suffering delusions. His officers' use of a restraint chair resulted in a wheelchair bound paraplegic losing the use of his arms. The man was restrained because he demanded a catheter; he'd been arrested for possessing a gram of cannabis and calling an Irish bar owner an 'Englishman'.

The crimes of the others are as revealing. The blind man was serving 6 months for shoplifting; the mentally handicapped man was arrested for loitering; the drug addict was arrested for a minor assault on a police officer.  No doubt the crimes of the desperados netted in his TV sting operation are unlikely to fall into the category of the 'most wanted'.

But, enough of this nasty little man. Should we do as our own champions of law and order, McVicar and MacPhee suggest, ie introduce tent prisons and bring back the death penalty?

Whilst there are some criminals (and people whose money and power mean they never get labeled as such) who I'd be happy to see towed way out to sea in a leaky boat with no oars, my thirst for vengeance is always eased by the thought of an innocent person facing death at the hands of the state.  And it is slaked completely when I consider the implications of the socioeconomic and ethnic profiles of the prison population – in both Arizona and Aotearoa-New Zealand.

Of all executions carried out in the USA between 1930-1968, 1,751 of the inmates were white and 2,066 were black. Black people comprised around 6% of the general population but 53% of those executed for capital crimes. Even more chilling is the fact that, of the 453 executed for rape, 48 were white and 405 were black.

These statistics speak both to race and class and should speak to us if we contemplate learning lessons from the likes of Arpaio and his supporters.

NZ already has an appallingly high incarceration rate and half the prison population is Maori. If you are poor and/or brown in Godzone you are more likely to be arrested, charged with a more serious crime, found guilty and receive a heavier sentence than if you are white and/or affluent. This is a reality that the law and order brigade may be content to ignore or consider to be justifiable. I do not.

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