The Politics of Death
In the immediate aftermath of the bloody Attica prison rebellion, one small news item seems to have escaped public notice. The New York Times published the reassuring information that although New York has "officially" abolished the death penalty, it still retains this punishment for such crimes as the Attica rebels were widely (though, according to reliable later reports, falsely) believed to have committed: killing of a prison guard or official by a prisoner under life term imprisonment. The idea behind such provisions in the criminal law is not hard to identify. If a policeman's job is not a happy one, a truth we learned as children from Gilbert and Sullivan, imagine what it must be like to be a guard for long-term prisoners. Since prison policies have long prohibited the possession of weapons by the custodial force, what protection can society offer the keepers from the assaults of the kept? Only the threat of the stiffest possible penalty. On that theory, presumably, the guards at Attica and elsewhere have been able to leave their families each day feeling a little more secure than they would have without the backing of the most extreme sanction. It is society's way of paying its debt of conscience to the prison guards.
That, or something like it, is what we would expect officials to say in defense of capital punishment for prison killings. Ever since Rhode Island abolished the death penalty over a century ago, only to reintroduce it for homicide by life term prisoners, the complete and unqualified abolition of capital punishment has had a steady opposition expressed by those who believe that police and prison guards need the special protection the death penalty provides. Perhaps even more than that, they need the visible proof that society stands behind them in the war on crime and will not hesitate to provide the fullest possible protection for these defenders of law and order.
It may come as something of a shock to learn that research published during recent years shows convincingly that the rate of assaults, fatal or otherwise, in prisons by prisoners bears no correlation whatever to the severity of the punishment for such crimes. Prisoners in death penalty states are as likely, or more likely, to commit such crimes as are convicts in abolition states. The same conclusion has been reached concerning the special protection afforded to the police by the death penalty: actual research on murder and assault rates of police shows that law enforcement officers run no higher risk in abolition states than they do in death penalty jurisdictions. Indeed, criminologists are in uniform agreement that so far as the general safety of society is concerned, the death penalty makes no difference to homicide one way or the other.