I’ve often thought the controversy around capital punishment, with life imprisonment as the proposed alternative, has things backward. It’s not the former that should be controversial but the latter.
The sickening Phillip Garrido/Jaycee Dugard story — of child kidnapping, imprisonment, rape — recalls an item of Torah wisdom about prison itself. Rav Hirsch reflects, “Punishments of imprisonment, with all the attendant despair and moral degeneration that dwell behind bars,…are unknown in Torah jurisprudence.” In Jewish law, there is virtually no role for incarceration at all.
The L.A. Times
notes the similarities between hollow eyed Garrido’s abduction of Jaycee Lee Dugard in 1991 and his abduction and rape of a 25-year-old woman in 1976. In between,
he spent 10 1/2 years in federal prison for the kidnapping and about seven months in a Nevada prison. He was paroled to California in August 1988, three years before he allegedly kidnapped Dugard.
Kidnapping is a capital offense in Torah law. This — stealing people — is the basic meaning of the eighth commandment. Garrido ought to have been executed long ago, in which case he never would have laid a hand on anyone else ever again.
Modern people tend to look askance at Torah jurisprudence, associating it with Shiite Iran or the Taliban. Yet consider the advantages. The punishments for various crimes include monetary fines, flogging, and death. They don’t include imprisonment, except while someone is being held for trial.
There is a humane recognition here that prison can be worse than death — from the depravity of prison life but also the sheer injustice, the torture, of anyone’s being confined for a long period of time. Freedom is an essential human right, as the federal justice system itself seemed to recognize when it freed Garrido after serving hardly more than a fifth of his original 50-year sentence. Better to die than be bound. In the case of Phillip Garrido, it would have saved a number of people years of agony, perhaps even including himself.