The Other Death Penalty: Death by Incarceration

By Evan Carlson

In the past few years, much of Nebraska’s criminal justice conversation has revolved around the death penalty. The state legislature voted 32-15 to repeal it in 2015, but with the help of $300,000 from the bloodthirsty Ricketts family, the repeal became a public referendum. When the public voted, 61% rejected the repeal. Three years later, on August 14th, 2018, the state executed Carey Dean Moore – the first prisoner to be killed using a fentanyl drug combination.

Outrage was immediate, but in some cases, problematic. For instance, Democratic state senator Anna Wishart wrote, “I have no sympathy for those who have committed heinous acts of violence, and for that I believe they should spend the rest of their lives imprisoned, but I do not believe in a government sanctioned death penalty.”

Some prison abolitionists would argue that what Wishart describes here is simply another type of death sentence – death by incarceration. Such an approach to criminal justice puts little faith in rehabilitation and reintegration. It assumes that people cannot change for the better, and as such, they should be punished for the remainder of their lives – lives that can hardly be described as fulfilling.

So, while we should continue to condemn the death penalty as a cruel practice, we must also condemn death by incarceration for its comparable cruelty. Additionally, death by incarceration affects far more people than the death penalty does. As of August 14th, 2018, there were 2,706 people on death row in the United States, according to the NAACP. However, the Sentencing Project found that the number serving life sentences in 2017 was closer to 206,268.

This figure includes a mix of people serving with and without the possibility for parole as well as those serving “virtual” life sentences (convicted for a set number of years but unlikely to live to their release date). Most disturbing is that “the number of people serving life sentences in U.S. prisons has nearly quintupled since 1984.” In contrast, the Death Penalty Information Center reports that the death penalty has been used less and less frequently in the past two decades, going down from 98 executions in 1999 to 16 so far this year.

Thankfully, there is action happening to fix the problem of death by imprisonment. This month, prisons around the nation are staging one of the largest prison strikes in American history. Prisoners have issued ten demands, including the following: “The Truth in Sentencing Act and the Sentencing Reform Act must be rescinded so that imprisoned humans have a possibility of rehabilitation and parole. No human shall be sentenced to Death by Incarceration or serve any sentence without the possibility of parole.” Notably missing from the ten demands is anything about the death penalty, perhaps given the fact that death by incarceration is a much larger problem.

As prisoners continue their strike, they will meet resistance. It is important that we support them in any way we can – to fight for a world with fewer prisons, more rehabilitation services, and a better life for all.

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