Trevor McDonald: Inside Death Row

Friday, 18 January 2013

For some strange reason I'm really into programmes about death row in America. I'm not a CSI addict and don't generally watch programmes about prisons, death and crime. I think the controversy and reality of death row is what makes it so fascinating. I've watched the documentaries in the past and liked them, but when I heard that the infamous Trevor McDonald was partaking in a two part death row special inside Indiana State Prison, I was eager to watch.

What with uni life it's hard to keep on top of the TV guide and I regularly find myself writing lists of all the programmes I've missed and then spending hours on end catching up on them of an evening. Inside Death Row was no different. I think it aired on the Thursday so I spent an hour of my Friday night catching up, and I'm glad I did. As a heads up, I'm not so much reviewing whether I think death row is an appropriate form of punishment, I'd call it examining the huge variations between how prosecution and sentencing works in England compared to America.

Americans really do have a completely different way of life to us here in England. Their values, morals and day to day lives differ as like any other country. But the main thing that differs which I find so hard to get my head around is the law. The sheer weight of the criminal sentences they dish out is quite a struggle to understand. I'm sure there is plenty of logic behind it, but with the death penalty having been abolished since 1965 in England it's somewhat difficult to grasp.

Even though a child is considered any person younger than 18 in England, in terms of the law a child is defined as any person below the age of 14. A young person is anyone between 14 and 18 and the English law states that children under the age of 10 have not reached 'the age of criminality', therefore cannot be prosecuted. This is because they are considered too young to differentiate between right or wrong meaning their only punishment is that they 'may' be placed under the supervision of social workers.

So let me just make the prosecution and sentencing process in England a little clearer for you. A youth court can impose community punishment, absolute and conditional discharges and order offenders to pay compensation and fines. They can make rehabilitation orders and set various requirements such as a curfew. More serious cases can see a youth given a detention and training order which can be imposed for a minimum of four months and a maximum of two years. This generally means that the juvenile spends half the period in custody with training, and the other half supervised in the community.

Now let's talk America. Absolutely and completely different. A juvenile can quite easily be sent to prison and be put on death row if the crime they commit is deemed serious enough. One guy on Inside Death Row was sent to prison at 15 for killing somebody at the age of 13. This inmate described the incident as unintended and by no means premeditated but was sentenced to 170 years. By no stretch of the imagination would this happen in England. Not a chance.

What I fail to understand is the absurdity of the length of the sentence. Where is the logic behind this when he is by no means going to outlive it. Maybe that's the point, that he'll never outlive it, but if he got sent to prison at 15 then surely a sentence of 85 years would be sufficient. The majority of adults don't surpass the age of 100, therefore the likelihood of him being released from prison is almost non-existent.

One of the main things that struck me while watching it was that in England life means 25 years maximum, in which the majority of convicted criminals who are sentenced to a life sentence will probably only serve half of it. I do think the English life sentence seriously needs to be reviewed because I don't feel that 25 years is a sufficient amount of time for the people who commit the most outrageous and unforgivable crimes. This doesn't mean I agree with the extremity of the American life sentence, in fact I disagree with it. Life should mean life but 170 years should most definitely be out of the question.

The same guy told Trevor that he could be reviewed for parole when he turned 100, but what sort of life is that? I'm not by any means condoning what he did I'm merely looking at it from a life quality point of view. He wouldn't really have a life if he was released from prison at 100 years old. Think of all the things he has missed out on - prom, driving, marriage, children, current affairs, you would be completely oblivious to the normal world that had kept on spinning outside of the four walls of your cell. They only have themselves to blame though. Everybody has a choice and even if it was a spur of the moment out of character action, we all make conscious decisions which we have the opportunity to retract before we follow through with them.

The shock didn't end there. Another guy was sentenced to three life sentences plus ten years. I can't remember off the top of my head what crime he committed but what sort of sentence is that? Surely the state need to establish a life sentence penalty and not just dish it out however they please. There's a strict legal and prosecution process so I think there should equally be a strict sentencing process. Not because I think these criminals should get shorter sentences but because it all seems a little too fickle.

Not all of the inmates are on death row, there's only a select number of criminals on it who have by far committed the worst crimes. Imagine having the time and date of your death hanging over you. One inmate had been on death row for 18 years and was two months away from being executed. An appeal was submitted against his sentence and he managed to get an incredibly lengthy custodial sentence instead which he certainly would not outlive.

There were a few valid points worth taking into consideration which were raised both by the inmates and Trevor himself. Firstly, one of the inmates argued that the state are prosecuting these criminals for killing, yet there is evident hypocrisy as the state then proceed to execute these people by giving them the lethal injection which poisons them to death. This might touch a nerve with some people who think that they shouldn't have killed somebody in the first place - yes - but if the state instils the law onto its people, how can they then override it themselves? It's a controversial argument that society will never agree on.

Secondly, Trevor McDonald roamed the premises of the prison and was taken to the hair salon. Inmates can earn privileges and get their hair cut in the salon up to twice a month but can also work there. These hairdressers are surrounded by, and are using sharp and bladed instruments on a daily basis which could be used as potential weapons. These people are criminals, and within a maximum security prison it just seems irresponsible to say the least.

With the average length served in the Indiana State Prison being 52 years, longer than any English sentence, it's absolutely preferable over execution. This documentary is capable of dividing opinions in which it will, mine remains impartial until I have seen the next part, but then I still don't know if I will be completely in favour of the death penalty or not. Only time will tell.

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