Generations of songwriters have tried to convey the horror of life in prison. Blues singer Bessie Smith poured out a lament in 1927: “I done cut my good man’s throat?…?ninety-nine years in jail?…?So judge, judge, good kind judge, send me to the ’lectric chair.” Two generations later, Bruce Springsteen sang in “Johnny 99” about a convict also facing a lifetime sentence and telling the judge, “I’d be better off dead?…?let ’em shave off my hair and put me on that killin’ line.”
Texas convict Benjamin David, on a prison website called “Welcome to Hell,” came to a similar conclusion: “Your mind brings sweet thoughts of past moments of tenderness and then your mind jerks you down into a living hell knowing that you will never experience these things again.?…?Society may say that killing by lethal injection is punishment, but society is WRONG. For most, dying is an escape, a relief from the harsh life of day to day survival.?…?If society truly wants to exact punishment they would abolish the death penalty tomorrow and sentence men to life in prison without parole.”
The late pastor and theologian John Stott, commenting on the doctrine of individuals experiencing hell for eternity, argued for “annihilation” instead. Most evangelicals have seen conscious punishment as the Bible’s teaching, but when it comes to life on earth, many have said justice requires a sudden ending rather than decades of imprisonment.
Last word belongs to Camille Bell, the mother of a child murdered in Atlanta. She wrote in 1991, “When a person is dead, you’re no longer punishing him.?…?If a person ends up in prison and has to live each day just trying to survive, he will think of why he is there. That, in my opinion, is punishment.?…?I don’t want the person who murdered my child to be killed, but that doesn’t mean I don’t want him punished.”