Upsetting Ms. Malkin: Why Death Row Inmates Should Have Blogs

Conservative blogger Michelle Malkin criticizes my enthusiasm for Meet Vernon, the first blog by a death row inmate.

Probably, she would not appreciate that I sometimes speak to students as young as those in middle school about the humanity of death row inmates, showing them blown-up images of several of those included in the 2000 Benneton campaign, "We on Death Row" and reading parts of their interviews. Nor would Ms. Malkin appreciate the "thank you" letters I've received from the teachers and students who've listened to my talk and were moved by the experience of viewing the actual faces of those of death row and hearing their words.

Ms. Malkin quips that she doesn't want to hear the condemned talk about their IPods or their razors or cameras. Of course, that's not what they talk about. They talk about their hopes, their fears, their lost dreams, their remorse, their nightmares. They talk about what it's like to know with certainty that the state is going to kill you, how they've messed up their lives, the things they miss, the people they've loved, their religion, their mothers, their children...and more.

Sears Roebuck didn't appreciate the Benneton campaign at the time and pulled the clothing line from their stores. My response to Sears was to call for a boycott of their stores. Crime victims didn't like that Benneton bought billboard space to display the campaign and ultimately, Benneton took them down. The Attorney General of Missouri sued. When the campaign began, all 96 pages of it was on the Internet. Now, you can't find the campaign online anywhere. It is as if it's been censored out of existence. I still have several copies, and this site still carries the press release to the campaign. Here's a portion:

Leaving aside any social, political, judicial or moral consideration, this project aims at showing to the public the reality of capital punishment, so that no one around the world, will consider the death penalty neither as a distant problem nor as news that occasionally appears on TV. Toscani's images aim at giving back a human face to the prisoners on death row, to remind those "respectable ppeople (who) are always so sure they're right..."(1) that the debate conerns men and women in flesh and blood, not virtual characters eliminated or spared with a simple click as with a videogame.

The campaign will appear on billboards and on the pages of the major news publications in Europe, America and Asia in January 2000. ... With this new initiative, Benetton has once again chosen to look reality in the face by tackling a social issue, as it did in previous campaigns that focused on war, Aids, discrimination and racism. Bitterly attacked by some and internationally acclaimed by others, Benetton's campaigns have managed to tear down the wall of indifference contributing at raising the awareness of universal problems among world's citizens. At the same time, they have paved the way for innovative modes of corporate communication

Here is one of the few places you can still read about the campaign.

Another consideration is the way capital punishment is routinely applied ­ anonymously, quietly, by men in white coats, in some prison basement, away from public view. Few people ever witness the event, and photos and cameras are banned. The net impact is that the public gets off easy ­ they can support capital punishment, without ever having to confront its effect: the state taking an individual's life.

Benetton's genius is that they turn the entire situation around. By focusing on the inmate's faces, his prison clothes, the bars in his cell, as well as most other indications of his social status are cropped out of the picture. The viewer no longer "knows" that he is looking at a guilty criminal, he is left to confront the man, as well as the question: why is he going to die?

Complaints that the ad campaign is unsympathetic to the murder victims are exaggerated. Asking society to change a death sentence to life imprisonment, is a perfectly valid request and need not have a bearing on the victim's loved ones. It is also disingenuous to imply, as many did, that Benetton was under obligation to mention the inmate's crimes, as well as their victims in the ads. This is advocacy advertising -- after all, when a car company runs an ad campaign, they don't show the car accidents.

The faces and stories of those on death row show what the present is like for those without a future. When a death row inmate has a blog, it brings the reality of the death penalty right to the American public. If every death row inmate had a blog, people would no longer be able to view the death penalty as somebody else's problem, as merely something that makes the news once in a while. These blogs would be googled and spidered the same as mine and Ms. Malkin's, and the public would see that death row inmates are human too.

TalkLeft has endorsed pen pal efforts for those awaiting execution. Providing death row inmates with blogs takes it one step further, as Benneton did so courageously five years ago. If every death row inmate had a blog, perhaps the wall of indifference would come tumbling down. Perhaps we would engage in more meaningful dialogue about whether the death penalty is ever justified. Perhaps public opinion would turn against the death penalty more quickly, and we would hasten the day when America is no longer the only civilized nation in the world to continue to kill its citizens in the name of justice, while hypocritically asserting it promotes a culture of life.

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    "Ms. Malkin quips that she doesn't want to hear the condemned talk about their IPods or their razors or cameras." She could have simply stopped at "hear" -- would it be any different, really?

    Eve Ensler teaches writing classes to women inmates and it is surprisingly effective in the rehabilitation process. POV filmed it and aired it on PBS. You can buy the video.

    Re: Upsetting Ms. Malkin: Why Death Row Inmates Sh (none / 0) (#7)
    by Ray Radlein on Sat Apr 09, 2005 at 01:18:11 AM EST
    Why on earth would anyone, with the possible exception of a clinical psychologist of some kind, care what Michelle Malkin says about anything at all? She's like David Irving without the good looks and intellect.

    Re: Upsetting Ms. Malkin: Why Death Row Inmates Sh (none / 0) (#8)
    by bad Jim on Sat Apr 09, 2005 at 01:23:53 AM EST
    Life imprisonment should suffice. Unfortunately, the U.S. is not the only advanced country continuing to use the death penalty. IIRC, our rate of judicial killing is just behind China and Iran, but Japan remains a member of the axis of barbarism.

    Matt - Excellent post. It's always easier for the self-righteous within our society to draw a clear line between "us" and "them". Many people don't seem to understand that, had their own life circumstances been different, their life outcomes would probably also be different. For my part I believe that the best approach when judging others is the "there but for the grace of God go I" philosophy. People are not born criminals, and those on death row usually arrive there at the end of a long road downhill. It therefore seems to me that it is beneficial for society to seek to understand why people who commit awful crimes behave the way they do.

    Re: Upsetting Ms. Malkin: Why Death Row Inmates Sh (none / 0) (#10)
    by roger on Sat Apr 09, 2005 at 04:11:25 AM EST
    todd, most people who kill murder a loved one, often while impaired, or while mentally ill. The jails immediately put them on suicide watch. Repeat murderers are much more unusual than you think. Remember, it's only a headline if it's unusual

    I agree with those who are upset by the sympathy demonstrated towards those who have committed horrible crimes. I do object to the Death Penalty and all it's trappings.

    Matt - thank you! Ian - also, well said Frightening to think of the lives Bush/Gonzales wiped out in Texas, isn't it? When you think of the number of people Bush and gang have sent to the hereafter, it was insulting to see him at the Pope's funeral. I hope Americans wake up - SOON!!

    Re: Upsetting Ms. Malkin: Why Death Row Inmates Sh (none / 0) (#13)
    by Pete Guither on Sat Apr 09, 2005 at 07:07:50 AM EST
    Who is Michelle Malkin and why is anyone listening to her? Isn't she the fantasy author who writes revisionist history novels?

    Re: Upsetting Ms. Malkin: Why Death Row Inmates Sh (none / 0) (#14)
    by Rick B on Sat Apr 09, 2005 at 08:38:12 AM EST
    Since most conservatives are driven by anxiety to try to control those around them, they have little time for empathy with others. In fact, empathy by others for those they want to control makes their control less certain. Allowing death row inmates to communicate who they really are is likely to lead to empathy for them by others. The death penalty is the ultimate control technique, and empathy for death row inmates is a threat to the death penalty. It is obvious that death row inmate blogs are gooing to be a persoanl threat to Michelle Malkin. Tough. She is a damaged person who needs to grow up.

    You'll notice that Malkin has no larger issue here--her whole post consists of taking cheap shots at someone who's about to die. Maybe after the execution, they'll let her poke at the body with a stick.

    Re: Upsetting Ms. Malkin: Why Death Row Inmates Sh (none / 0) (#16)
    by Che's Lounge on Sat Apr 09, 2005 at 08:45:16 AM EST
    Matt, I personally oppose the death penalty in almost all cases because I've seen enough to convince me our current legal system can never administer it in a foolproof fashion. I oppose any punishment that can't be remedied in a system that makes this many mistakes. Thank you. I believe we have over 130 examples of your position. I would add that in a spiritual/moral sense I cannot condone the act of taking life for revenge. If we are to have an organized, civil society, there should be a system of justice that prevents revenge from becoming the reason d'etre for capital punishment. It's obvious that we have the capability of incarcerating death row individuals effectively (at least more effectively than we are at correctly identifying them, and even still, their basic human rights are repeatedly violated). An eye for an eye is not pertinent to a 21st century civilized society. It's an old concept, very likely prehistoric in origin.

    Matt - I have long been of the opinion that executions should be at high noon in a public place and required by law to be caried on all TV networks. Let everyone see what happens when a life is taken. In that respect, the choice should be hanging, or firing squad, with the traditional coup de grace required. Rick B - No. A lifetime of observation shows me that over controllers are spread across the entire political spectrum. Their pet issues, however, are bunched around their beliefs. et al - No, convicted prisoners of any type should not have a blog, or email, or unrestricted access to a phone. By definition, they are criminals and are serving a term of pennance and punishment. They should be given increased education, and treated properly, otherwise, "fugitboutit."

    PPJ - death row prisoners are not sentenced to a term of penal servitude, they are sentenced to death. Todd - most DR prisoners in the US are not repeat offenders All prisoners should be allowed to communicate with the free world. Disconnecting them from the reality of the outside world is making their rehabilitation an inevitable failure

    Sandrine - Whatever, I'm sure you got my point, which also included ALL.

    Re: Upsetting Ms. Malkin: Why Death Row Inmates Sh (none / 0) (#20)
    by jondee on Sat Apr 09, 2005 at 05:00:54 PM EST
    PPJ - A little brutality is good for soul eh? Sounds like a plan. Afterall, things havnt been the same for alot of the Bush base since the big crack-down on cock and dog fighting.

    I would add that in a spiritual/moral sense I cannot condone the act of taking life for revenge.
    An eye for an eye is not pertinent to a 21st century civilized society
    Che: I can only add that if someone wishes to support the death penalty on religious or moral grounds they will have to base it on something other than New Testament grounds;and that came in the 1st century.

    jondee - Nope. I just believe that if we're gonna do it, let's be up front with it. People might not be in such a hurry to execute if they saw the real deal.

    Re: Upsetting Ms. Malkin: Why Death Row Inmates Sh (none / 0) (#23)
    by jondee on Sat Apr 09, 2005 at 05:55:13 PM EST
    PPJ - The historical evidence dosnt bear out your hypothesis. During the "black laws" period in England,it got to the point where they were hanging ten year olds for shop-lifting. I think the spectacle has a brutalizing,jadeing effect. People already have tail-gate parties at some prison executions.

    Well, I find that unfortunate in the extreme, but as I said above, the courts have repeatedly found that inmates do not surrender First Amendment rights except as necessary for the security of their incarceration. Plus, and this should go without saying, no one really knows that the writings on the Internet are from the convicted killer. No inmate has "unrestricted" access to anything, especially a blog or the Internet. The blog that started this topic is run by a pen pal on the outside, who posts the contents of letters the inmate sends through the US mail, where they're read by prison officials before they leave the facility. Yes, this guy posting about someone he killed is offensive and deserves condemnation. But what next? Does his "pen pal" not get to post about the crime either? Do reporters not get to question the conviction because it might "offend" the family? Being reminded of the crime is obviously hurtful to the family. One might point out that this may be one reason the person convicted of it is to be executed.

    jondee - During the same time people were starving to death, and dying of diseases we treat with over the counter drugs. There is no comparsion. Again. If we want to execute, then let's do it in light so all can see what killing someone looks like. And if people want to celebrate, well, that's their right, yes?

    jondee - Wilde said it best: "The warders strutted up and down, And watched their herd of brutes, Their uniforms were spick and span, And they wore their Sunday suits, But we knew the work they had been at, By the quicklime on their boots." You are not going to eliminate an action by hiding it.

    I'm not sure how Vernon Evans actually posts his messages on the blog. I don't think he has computer access, so like many others he relies on an outsider whom he trusts to do this for him. It is up to this person to draw the line to exclude hateful or vengeful messages. Although I'm not certain that censhorship should be exercised... Who decides what is acceptable and what is not? Many DR Prisoners actually post on the Internet, either on newsgroups or on their personal websites, so what's the big deal about the blogs?

    Re: Upsetting Ms. Malkin: Why Death Row Inmates Sh (none / 0) (#31)
    by kdog on Sun Apr 10, 2005 at 10:08:22 AM EST
    I have the pleasure of reading Malikn most everyday in the Post (I read the rag for the unintentional comedy). Condemnation from her is a badge of honor. BTW..Ever seen her on tv? She's got those "crazy eyes", most often seen on the face of a rabid republican. People like that scare me with their empty stares.

    DA - And did what he see change him? I have to believe that if the execution was done in public, the horror of it would sink in, and maybe we could have LWOP except for very exceptional cases.

    Well, it's only in our dreams that we'll see public execution make people realize the horror of it. Whenever and wherever executions are public, they drive masses of people who watch, bring their kids and their picnic. The more horrible the method, the more people are attracted to watch. The human nature is that amibiguous, just like kids who are drawn to horror stories even if they scares them and keeps them awake at night. In fact some countries stopped having public executions simply it was attracting too many people and ended up like a large popular party... America certainly has a very weird culture of punishment and confuses justice and vengeance.

    Matt & Ray : Great posts! Sandrine when did you start posting here? - k

    Everyone in the free west is entitled to free speech. I am not saying give every prisoner a computer and the internet, but via a mediator they should be allowed to have the right of reply. To say a prisoner doesn't have the right to free speech is very dangerous, lets lock them up and never let them speak again, it doesn't matter if they where wrongfully committed or if there is a miscarriage of justice. The Death penalty is a barbaric and evil form of punishment. America is the only western country that uses the death penalty why? Does the rest of the west have a problem without it? Life in Prison should mean life in Prison. It isnít fun in there you know.