In the wake of a gruesome death chamber incident in Oklahoma, the writer of the May 17 Readers’ Forum letter “Return to former execution methods” called for the return to more humane methods of execution, such as hanging, electrocution, or the gas chamber.
I paused a long time at the word “humane,” which implies mercy or compassion.
For years, I’ve lived in Michigan, which does not have the death penalty. Those who have committed murder or other heinous crimes are often sentenced to “natural life,” meaning they never will be released.
I have taught as a volunteer for 25 years at Gus Harrison Correctional Facility near Adrian, Mich. I’ve had numerous lifers in my classes, gray-haired men who have been incarcerated for decades.
They frequently are the wisdom figures in the class. They are thoughtful and measured in our discussions.
The younger inmates look up to them and value their opinions. So do I.
One night, our discussion prompted one of the older lifers to say: “I did one terrible thing when I was young and high, but I’ve changed. I’ve grown up and changed. But I’ll never get out.” The silence in the room spoke volumes. We all respected and liked him.
I don’t agree with natural life for all serious offenders. But Michigan’s rejection of the death penalty has allowed many lifers to mature in prison, to become unshackled from their addictions, and — most important — to redeem themselves.
They become men who have accepted their punishment, even as they continue to grow in knowledge and wisdom and become mentors to younger inmates.
The alternative sentence of life without parole is as punitive as any execution. This is — for a nation that likes to be thought of as civilized — more humane.
SISTER PATRICIA SCHNAPP
Editor’s note: The writer is a Sister of Mercy.