April 18, 2024

‘The last frontier in prison reform’: assisted suicide?

Denying inmates the right is ‘cruel and unusual punishment’

Photo by Larry Farr on Unsplash

Activist Philip Nitschke once described euthanasia as the “last frontier in prison reform”. His idea has still not caught on. A Belgian prisoner was allowed to take advantage of euthanasia, but it never happened. But the idea refuses to die.

The author of an article in latest issue of the Journal of Criminal Law and Criminology argues that assisted suicide should be allowed in American prisons.

Kathleen S. Messinger observes that assisted suicide is becoming increasingly acceptable in the US. “The autonomy, self-determination, and pain that a terminally ill patient may feel justifies the decision to die with dignity.” Why shouldn’t terminally-ill prisoners be given the same opportunity?

This is a violation of the Constitution’s prohibition on cruel and unusual punishment because it is unnecessarily punitive and exacerbates the pain of individuals already suffering. When the state strips individuals of their freedom and denies them their ability to “provide for their own needs,” the government has an affirmative duty to provide for the inmate. Regardless of how we morally feel about aid in dying as an option, and perhaps believe that those incarcerated deserve to suffer, the state must fulfill its obligation to provide for aid in dying because anything less is “incompatible with the concept of human dignity . . . .”

The question is particularly relevant now as prisons are filling up with more and more elderly inmates. By 2030, over 55s will make up a third of American inmates. Some have dementia and no longer even remember why they were incarcerated. A 2017 report warned that the US was moving towards an “Elder Incarceration Crisis.” Messinger says that “prisons are overcrowded, underfunded, and ill-equipped to support terminally ill and aging inmates”. Perhaps assisted suicide and/or euthanasia would help governments to reduce costs and improve conditions. 

Michael Cook is editor of BioEdge

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