Aaron Hernandez’s death is an excellent opportunity for tasteless dark humor: “I heard he was out with a neck injury,” etc. ad nauseam, come the nausea when it may. For the most part, I approve of it. Morbid humor can be a cathartic agent and a useful, albeit indirect and subtle, meditation on our own mortality, which can be one hell of a demon to try to confront directly.
The particular circumstances of the Hernandez case make tasteless jokes about his death especially justifiable: he was, after all, a raging thug, a convicted murderer, and, in spite of his most recent acquittals, arguably a serial murderer. There are a great many Americans who do not belong in our prisons; Aaron Hernandez was not one of them. There was nothing that the state could do to protect society from that man other than to confine him to the best of its ability until he stopped being a threat to others, and absent the possibility of an utterly infirm old age that was decades into his future, if it was in his future at all (remember, he was exceptionally physically fit for a man of any age), he showed no prospect of reform. Most parole systems in the US, definitely including life without parole regimes, are unjustifiably merciless, but it would be reckless to grant a convict like Hernandez any form of release without extreme due diligence and caution. The guy didn’t just stumble into some bad circumstances and make some mistakes. He didn’t just get mixed up with the wrong crowd. By some accounts, he was a sociopath, and by most he was violently troubled to his core. A 25-year non-parole period (the statutory maximum in Canada) might have been enough to simmer his ass down, but we’d be fools to count on it. Most murderers have a low risk of recidivism, even by the standards of violent felons in general, but Hernandez wasn’t most murderers. In his short life at liberty, he showed himself to be a hyperrecidivist. We don’t want thugs like him getting all worked up and putting a gun to some poor schmuck’s head for no reason, just in case he feels like blowing some more brains out. Forget punishment or retribution; for everyone else’s safety, that animal needed to spend a damn long time in a cage.
Now comes the news that Aaron Hernandez has cut his own sentence short. I can’t blame him. It was the only form of mercy he could seek. This is a separate matter from whether he belonged in prison (he absolutely did). No amount of prison reform would have made it possible for the state to show him real mercy without putting the public at grave risk of injury and death. Any improvement of his quality of life that the Massachusetts prison system could have brought about would still have featured his confinement to a secure facility. He would still have been forced to live out his foreseeable life in an extremely small and confined world. This isn’t cause to be smug or self-righteous; it’s a necessary evil. Nothing else can be done safely with men such as him. A person might sincerely discern a call to minister precisely to men of his character, to offer the most hardened and lost some hope of repentance and redemption, however faint, and come away unable to fulfill this calling. From that perspective, it’s actually less tragic when dipshit women who get horny around trouble start pen pal relationships with Charles Manson; it’s still bad news, but at least they get some jollies from their efforts.
Is it too much to hope and pray that Aaron Hernandez finds the mercy that he sought through his suicide? The state protected its peaceable constituents from him for the remainder of his life, so its duty to us is done. Many people, especially in a society as shamelessly bloodthirsty as the United States, would have preferred that Hernandez be executed, often in some gruesome fashion whose very proposal indicates a deep psychic sickness tending towards depravity. The State of Massachusetts had the decency and the principle to deny the mob this selfish, coarsening satisfaction, and Hernandez’s last violent act, it seems, was a private act entirely against himself. The prison staff who tried to revive him and then had to deal with his remains when their efforts failed may sustain some psychological trauma, but their jobs force them to deal with the horrors of prison life as partial outsiders every day, and at least they have been spared the very real trauma that psychologically healthy people feel for having committed a homicide after taking part in executions.
Questions of what prison staff should to do prevent inmate suicide, especially on the part of lifers and others serving long sentences, are morally and practically trickier than they look at first glance from the outside. A corrections spokesman said that Hernandez would not have been housed in the unit where he hanged himself had he shown any signs of suicidal ideation or action. This sounds believable; many prisons do in fact take great care to watch for signs of suicide and put their visibly suicidal inmates on suicide watch. None of this changes the fact that they’re watching over inmates who are serving life without parole, or even just surreally long sentences for more or less harmless crimes, under a judicial regime almost entirely devoid of mercy. Suicide offers some of these inmates their only hope of release. It’s hard to scare them of eternal hell when they’re already living in it every day.
This is something that civilians, especially the ones who comment the loudest about all the bad things that should be done to criminals, consistently miss. They cannot fucking imagine what it’s like to be locked up in a prison for decades on end, looking at the same walls every fucking day, with no hope of release until either old age or death. It is inherently an extremely limiting environment. It is nothing like civilian life, except maybe for quadriplegics, the locked-in, or the very chronically bedridden. That some people truly need to be there for the protection of the rest of us doesn’t make prison anything but an abnormal and naturally evil environment. Nor does it mean that incarceration should be the first response for most crimes. It’s depraved to imprison people who aren’t truly dangerous, and it should come as no surprise that some of those who enter prison close to harmless are released in a state of hardened anger; just give a moment’s thought to the company that they’ve been forced to keep and the conditions in which they’ve been forced to keep it. No shit our prisons vomit out troubled recidivists.
Psychological interventions for lifers and longhaulers are questionable. Staff are forced to either ignore inmates because they can’t hope to do any good anyway or treat them under conditions that make their effective treatment impossible. In many cases it’s impossible to provide psychiatric care without violating the Hippocratic Oath. Many prisoners are suicidal because their continued survival in prison will inevitably do them grievous harm and they objectively have no other avenue of relief; staging psychiatric interventions against their wishes is a direct harm verging on torture. The political will to give prisoners real hope of real mercy is spotty (in spite of significant reforms, we’re alone among countries with elements of self-government and the rule of law for the grotesque excess of our penal system), so of course some of them take matters into their own hands one last time. Missionary assholes showing up with cheap, tone-deaf references to slavery and imprisonment as analogies for shit like porn habits don’t help things, either. Incarceration isn’t a necessary precondition for suicide, but it sure helps. Giving a desperate, suicidal person a reason to live is dangerously tricky in normal circumstances, and the circumstances in prison, as I’ve mentioned, are anything but normal. It’s bullshit to tell a man like Aaron Hernandez that it isn’t the Promised Land that’s waiting for him on the other side if only he puts the bedsheet around his neck and takes that last step. Anyone who has spent an entire life at liberty and says otherwise is as crazy about prison life as Psychotarp is about everything under the sun. As Darshan Singh (himself a fairly sick puppy) always said in his farewells to others, but not in his own, “God bless you. I am sending you to a better place than this.”
A few years ago, when Ariel Castro committed suicide in prison, Rod Dreher spat out a homily of American Conservatism (TM) in which he pronounced that he would have preferred that Mr. Castro had devoted his life to contemplation and repentance. Castro was the Cleveland bus driver who had kidnapped young women and held them hostage for years in his house, resulting in a 999-year prison sentence upon his conviction. He killed himself about a month after his transfer to state prison, greatly disappointing Rod Dreher. The American Conservative has an exceptionally civil commentariat, but Dreher’s posturing over this case annoyed the hell out of his normally cordial peanut gallery. At least one asked, more or less verbatim, “Why did you write that?” It was a good point, and not a troll job. (The American Conservative is one of the most flame-retardant publications on the internet.) A convict he had never met had just killed himself in Ohio, making the news only because he had already made the news for being a source of distress to damsels, and now this scold was showing up from Louisiana to chide the dear departed prisoner for being a moral coward. What the hell was it to him? Coming from Dreher, this bottomfeeding was especially rich, indicating that he had managed to complete adult catechesis as an Orthodox Christian and miss the part about praying for the salvation of the dead. Oops. Wow Much options Many freewill None penitence Omg st benedict Very confuse.
Dreher writes for a living. I scavenge deposit bottles for a living. Construe “living” however the hell you like, as long as Dreher’s is three or four orders of magnitude larger than mine currently is. Maybe an American could “conserve” some of his salary and remit it to me instead, since we’re writing about the same shit. Okay, not exactly; I’m not the one who got paid to argue that some infamous creep in Ohio did me bogus by refusing to pray his days away in his cell like a pre-Lutheran Martin Luther.
Admit it: you’re already missing our regular buddies Sauce Boss, Northside Juice, Raw Ginger, and Fish Man, and they’ve hardly been gone for a full screed. I certainly am. But at least I’m not getting my coffee from Sweet Melissa of the Maritimes. It’s free, and you don’t even have to ask her for it, but it comes at a cost. Nor am I doing life without parole for murder. Real pleasant, I know, but we would all do well to count what blessings we have, especially when Darshan Singh isn’t the one conferring them upon us.