I got my August issue of The Sun this afternoon, and read an interview by David Cook, journalist, of Sister Helen Prejean, a nun who has been a spiritual advisor to many death row inmates and who writes books and travels the US on speaking tours, encouraging the abolition of the death penalty.  I lost my naiveté about the death penalty in high school when I read John Grisham’s novel The Chamber, but I haven’t given it much thought since — even, and this is a confession — when I took a college course inside the Tennessee Prison for Women.  At the TPFW, our class was given a tour of the prison, including maximum security, and it’s even more embarrassing that I can’t remember if the women we saw in solitary confinement were on death row or not.  I know there are two there, now.

I seem to be a troubled pacifist, and we all are troubled, here, by questions of violence and restoration and punishment.  I can be so sure that the death penalty is inhuman, but not worry at all about the powerful mechanisms that keep our prison system running much as it has always run — violently, inefficaciously, and at capacity.  This is a problem.  And here’s an excerpt from the interview:

Cook: You’ve said that if executions were made public, people would realize the brutality of this system and work to end it.  Yet, in our past, crowds would show up for public executions, some with picnic lunches.  In our age of violent media, what makes you so sure average citizens wouldn’t applaud the execution of a killer they were certain was guilty?

Prejean: There would be some, no doubt, who would pull out a beer and cheer that this terrible murderer had been killed.  But for most people who see it up close, capital punishment is very unsettling.  The head of the Department of Corrections in Louisiana has to arrange the protocol for executions, and part of that is gathering witnesses.  At first he thought he’d have a line of people stretching across the Mississippi River waiting to get in, but soon realized that no one who witnessed an execution asked to come back.  When you’re in the death chamber, you see when they have to jab the needle eighteen times into the arm of the condemned.  You hear the stumbling last words of those who are killed: “Mama, I love you,” or “I’m so sorry.”  Imagine an ordinary American family having their evening meal, and the news comes on, and the kids ask their parents, “Isn’t this murder, too?” and, “Why are they putting antiseptic on his arm if they’re going to kill him”?  It would not take long for people to cry out against this, and that’s why it will never be public.  You have to keep it from the eyes of the people.

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