Nelson Mandela wrote, “It is said that no one truly knows a nation until one has been inside its jails. A nation should not be judged by how it treats its highest citizens, but its lowest ones.”
Prison conditions within the state of Louisiana pass judgment on us as a society, and testify to our inhumanity and our lack of regard for either human life or the dignity and value inherent in every human.
That our prisoners on death row in Angola are exposed to temperatures and humidity resulting in heat indexes as high as 195 degrees Fahrenheit goes beyond merely violating the 8th Amendment’s protection of every American from the threat of cruel and unusual punishment. It demeans the very humanity we seek to protect by the incarceration and punishment of these inmates, and consigns us to the deplorable role of torturers.
Many might see the cruel and inhumane crimes of these inmates as justification for visiting upon them these conditions — that their treatment of the innocent allows any cruelty inflicted upon the guilty. However, we must strive to avoid the sort of lex taliones (an eye for an eye) that heaps crime upon crime. We must seek to preserve the very merit of human life that death row inmates have violated in their murders. We must not lower ourselves to their crimes, and thereby make ourselves complicit in them. We must be worthy of being their judges, and not act as accomplices in the wider violation of our shared humanity.
A suit filed on behalf of three death row inmates at Angola by New Orleans-based The Promise of Justice Initiative seeks to redress this violation of our humanity, not by providing comfort for these prisoners, but by ensuring their humanity will not be treated cruelly. It demands that a minimum standard of a heat index not exceeding 88 degrees be maintained. This is humane, not luxury.
Such a standard recognizes that it is not the prisoners who are coddled, but that the state and identity of humanity is at stake and is preserved. If we are judged, not by how we treat those who are most noble in their behavior and character in our society, but how we treat humanity that has itself been inhumane, then let us be better than criminals.
I ask The Advocate and its readers to support this suit and the sentiments behind it so that we may prove ourselves worthy of such noble titles as “civilized” and “human.” Let us temper vengeance with justice, and protect ourselves as we protect the very least among us.
Fr. W. Patrick Edwards, priest-in-charge
Saint Margaret’s Episcopal Church