Death Gives Life Meaning: Michigan, The Muskegon Correctional Facility, and Capital Punishment

If you bet that the vast majority of Michigan prisoners opposed capital punishment, you would lose that bet.

History

Michigan outlawed capital punishment in 1962. As a territory, Michigan had 13 executions, but the only execution after achieving statehood was Federal and beyond state jurisdiction. The death penalty was officially banned in 1847, in part because the wrongful execution of Patrick Fitzpatrick in 1828, for killing an innkeeper’s daughter, was eventually confessed to by Fitzpatrick’s roommate on his deathbed in 1835. Michigan was the first English-speaking territory in the world to institute such a ban. In 1963 capital punishment was constitutionally banned in Michigan.

The MCF Debate

In the late 1970’s, L. Brooks Patterson, Oakland County Executive and noted racist prepared the groundwork for an eventual run for Michigan governor on a pro-capital punishment foundation. His death penalty advocacy gained state-wide attention and Gary Wells, MCF Warden, got the ridiculous idea of inviting Patterson and Howard Simon, Michigan ACLU Director (anti-capital punishment), to MCF to debate capital punishment. Gary decided the debate would be in the MCF school auditorium (which accommodates an audience 200–250 prisoners) and the attending prisoners would vote on the “winner.” Because I was the school principal and responsible for the auditorium, Gary informed me I was in charge of the debate. My first thought was “Are you out of your fucking mind?!” — — not the kind of sentiment you dared share with Warden Wells.

I prayed that Patterson or Simon would decline the invitation — — They accepted.

I prayed few prisoners would show for the debate — — It was standing room only.

I prayed Patterson and Simon would show up on time so I didn’t have to worry about 250 antsy convicts — — Patterson was early but Simon was not.

I prayed Simon would call at the last minute and cancel — — He showed an hour late.

I prayed prisoners would not mob and assault Patterson — — (to be continued)

I attended the debate and it made me very interested in capital punishment, and eventually proud I worked Corrections in a state without it.

Execution Arguments

Proponents of capital punishment falsely argue that executing killers saves money over life imprisonment. The automatic appeals (among other factors such as very high security death row housing[1]) afforded convicted murderers cost far more than life without parole sentences. As an example, it cost Florida alone 51 million dollars a year to administer the death penalty over imposing life sentences.

Capital punishment supporters argue that states with capital punishment have lower murder rates. In fact, murder rates in death penalty states are consistently higher than in those states without capital punishment.

Death penalty proponents argue that capital punishment serves justice (an eye for an eye) and legalized vengeance. Yet, since 1973 more than 185 people sentenced to death were exonerated, with official misconduct and perjury/false accusation as the leading causes of their wrongful convictions. It is hard to see how justice is served regarding an irreversible punishment in such a flawed prosecutorial/jury system. In addition, the death penalty’s application is racist, with Blacks being disproportionately executed. Between 1913 and 2017 Arkansas executed 200 people, with 137 (68.5%) being Black. Arkansas’s state population is consistently about 77% white, 15 % Black, 7% Hispanic/Latino. 1.4% Asian, and 0.6% Native American.

Arkansas: Lying to Kill

For a long time, I have stood against capital punishment because I have yet to hear a convincing argument in its defense…by convincing I mean an argument that I couldn’t refute. On the other hand, an argument against capital punishment that I wasn’t able to sustain is that conducting state sanctioned executions denigrates any society where that is allowed. It’s hard to support such an argument because it is so generalized as to be indefensible; something sufficiently amorphous is hard to use as an argument for or against. That is until Arkansas rushed to schedule executions for eight men in ten days, an effort that gave me an opportunity to revisit the social denigration.

One of the reasons given against the Arkansas plan is that dispatching the lives of so many men in so short a time is very hard on staff. This is a valid argument that has been studied and shown to be true. I have personally spoken to Wardens who have supervised executions and learned that they have recurrent nightmares about killing men they were convinced were guilty, and are awakened by night sweats and uncontrolled shaking over killing prisoners whose guilt they doubted.

At the invitation of the facility Warden, I visited a women’s prison in Illinois that maintained a death-row, and spent an hour with a Black, middle-aged woman sentenced to death for killing her husband who repeatedly viciously beat her. We sat side-by-side in her cell on her bed and looked at family photo albums; she told me about her kids and her brothers and sisters. She was a very sweet lady, and after leaving her I was shaken with sadness. I was not going to be part of her execution, but might as well have been because periodically I think about her with sad fondness. In 2011, Illinois Governor Pat Quin abolished the death penalty after discovering 13 men on death row were wrongly convicted and had to be released. He commuted the sentences of 15 remaining death row prisoners, including the lady I visited.

But a few hundred correctional staff involved with administering capital death do not a society make.

From what I have read, Arkansas has given two reasons for implementing their unusual plan: they say moving forward at such a rapid pace will allow the families of victims to achieve “closure”.

Before we go on let’s define closure as “a feeling that something has been completed or a problem has been solved; that a bad experience has ended and you can begin to live again in a calm and normal way”.

The closure argument is a red herring because, as anyone who has suddenly lost a love one will tell you, you never move on; that living a life is not the same as moving on, if by moving on you mean putting something in your past with minimal effect. In cases of murder, an execution may provide a kind of satisfaction born of vengeance, but again the family of murder victims will often say that such as satisfaction is short lived. Do family and friends continue with their lives? Of course, they do, in most cases. But they also say they never stop grieving and any closure they experience is ephemeral, and that their grief changes them and they are never again “normal”. And the closure argument is further complicated by the fact that the authorities carrying out capital punishment really don’t give closure much weight…in other words, don’t really give a damn. There are numerous instances when the families of murder victims have forgiven perpetrators and said they don’t want to see them put to death, yet despite such pleas the capital death sentence is carried out. Indeed, research shows that the families of murder victims often feel revictimized when the death penalty is administered.

Forgiving is self-preservation; you do it for yourself; it’s personal; it’s closure.

But again, a few hundred correctional staff and a few thousand family members do not a society make. For that we must look at a bigger picture, say an entire state like Arkansas.

The second argument that Arkansas officials have made is that they need to use up their supply of the sedative Midazolam (one of a three drug cocktail used in executions) because their drug supply was about to expire, and no other drugs are available. I find that an astonishing argument, likening what amounts to a fire sale of executions to clearing off a grocers’ shelves of Little Debbies before they reach their expiration date (though I doubt something as packed with preservatives as Little Debbies actually expire). Astonishing, because of its callous and cold assembly line efficiency and mercantile nature, it’s a ‘let’s clear the lot’ before things become obsolete attitude. And as if that were not bad enough, the manufacturer of one of the other death cocktail drugs, vecuronium bromide, has sued Arkansas claiming officials lied about what they would use the drug for to get around the manufacturer’s prohibition against using their drugs for executions.

What I think we have here is a clear example of how executions harm the character of society. We have a state government dealing in death like some appliance warehouse hucksters, and a state, led by its Governor, willing to lie to get the means with which to kill. I don’t know about you, but to me what happened in Arkansas is a social denigration.

MCF Debate Voting Results

The debate votes were counted and Howard Simon won by six votes, meaning almost half the convicts supported Patterson’s arguments for capital punishment, a result that mirrors national U.S. survey results. Why is this so?

Death is Life

As a group (and there certainly are exceptions that prove this rule) prisoners are poorly educated, thus making them vulnerable to long standing myths and beliefs, and one of the most enduring beliefs is that of redemption through blood sacrifice.

Humanity has a long history of seeking redemption and social solidarity through the practice of human and animal (blood) sacrifice. Near Eastern and Western monotheistic religions hold tightly to the belief that we are made better by participating in blood sacrifices of one sort or another, with the most prominent religion in the U.S. having a human crucifixion as its central organizing principle.

As enlightenment ideas took hold in Western societies, the sacrifice of people and animals was replaced by symbolic sacrifices such as the communal act of consuming objects such as wine and bread that are or represent blood and body. Judicially, Enlightenment ideas moved criminal justice from executions for even the most minor crimes, to incarceration and monitoring of people, with executions reserved for only the most egregious offenses; and the public spectacle of often bloody executions being replaced with bloodless procedures such as hanging, electrocution, gas chambers, and finally lethal injections.

Yet the belief in execution as an atonement for certain sins, and as a means to achieving justice and social solidarity, is still very strong, particularly with less educated and highly religious groups such as those in the Southern and Mid-Western states, states that follow robust capital punishment policies and procedures, and have poorer than average education systems, and higher than average religious participation.

Is it no wonder then that poorly educated prisoners, who as a group are the recipients of large amounts of pastoral religious activity, would be almost evenly split regarding death penalty support? Prisoners, like many groups outside of prison, find consolation in capital punishment: The consolation that comes from knowing you may be a sinner, but at least you’re not as bad as a murderer; consolation that comes from bearing witness through the belief that executing some prisoners is validation that those not executed are worthy of redemption; and the consolation that gives hope that you have a chance of sharing solidarity with others in a “common world of feeling.”

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[1] The higher the security level, the greater the cost of housing a prisoner. The cost of housing a prisoner in Death Row is comparable to super-maximum security, which is about $70,000/year, as opposed to about 40,000 for maximum security, $30,000 for medium security, and $20,000 for minimum security. Most lifers can be housed in medium security. These are approximate costs because I could find no Google site that aggregates cost on a national basis. Sites do report cost data by individual sates and the Federal Bureau of Prisons.

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Joseph Abramajtys

Joseph Abramajtys

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