The Right to Die in Prison

Belgium's decision to grant euthanasia to a prisoner who claims he's beyond rehabilitation may seem like a win-win, but making choices in prison isn't like making choices anywhere else.

October 15, 2014

Bert Archer is a Canadian author, journalist, travel writer, essayist and critic. He is the author of The End of Gay (and the death of heterosexuality...

Frank Van Den Bleeken would like to die, please.

He’s a Belgian rapist and murderer, convicted for crimes he committed in his 20s. He’s in his 50s now, imprisoned for three decades, and says he’s every bit as nasty as he ever was. It’s a burden, apparently, both to him and, since it means he’ll never get out of prison, to society—and, also, a sort of terminal illness.

While Belgium has no death penalty, it is one of only three nations in which euthanasia is legal. They’ve euthanized someone who figured life was no longer worth living after a botched gender-reassignment operation, and a set of deaf twins who found out they were going blind but were otherwise healthy. They also recently made it legal to euthanize children.

So, why not?

That’s the conclusion the Belgian courts came to, after three years of pondering. Frank Van Den Bleeken is going to die, in a hospital, after seeing his loved ones, presumably at the hands of the sorts of drugs used at assisted suicide clinics in places like Zurich: all very calm, with none of the drama of the US death chambers. And there are a dozen other Belgian prisoners with their own requests waiting behind him. Nasty people all, I’m sure, and few will be sorry to see them gone.

It seems, at first blush, to be an ideal compromise, and possibly even a solution to the death penalty issue—one of the chief arguments against which is that the state does not have the right to take a life. But if it’s a choice left up to the prisoner, then surely anyone who supports one’s right to make end-of-life decisions should be in favour of this. It would seem to cover all the bases. Practically, it’s far cheaper than keeping the guy alive. For fans of ius talionis, it’s a death for a death. And ethically, the decision is in the prisoner’s hands, not the state’s.

Which is where, according to Michael Radelet, we encounter the rub.

Radelet, a professor of sociology at the University of Colorado at Boulder, has spent much of his career considering criminals and the death penalty. He worked with the late Hugo Bedau, a philosopher and author of the standard American text on the subject, The Death Penalty in America. For him, the ethics start to get murky when we consider the issue of competence.

“We’ve demonstrated very well that we can make people so miserable in prison that they don’t want to live,” he says, “and that is a universal issue.”

By definition, he says, the people who would be most likely to choose euthanasia are the ones who have lived through things that make it unlikely their decision will be rational by any useful definition of the term. He sees the issue of prison euthanasia as not essentially different from what he calls “consensual executions” of those American prisoners who decide to call a halt to their appeals and accept the death penalty.

“There are lots of issues involved,” he says. “Lots of these people were mistreated as children: physical abuse, sexual abuse, emotional abuse. Nobody cared very much for them when they were young, and that leads the inmate to having basically no love for himself. He hates himself too, hates what he did, and lives with the guilt.” These sorts of feelings and tendencies are of course exacerbated by incarceration, making it questionable whether any meaningful decision about the end of one’s own life can be made.

“It does raise questions about whether the environment in which this decision is made,” he says, “that it’s in a prison, is one where the individual’s autonomy can only be expressed through a choice.”

As part of his work, Radelet has worked with prisoners on death row in American facilities, and has seen half a dozen decide to terminate their appeals. “When you see these cases,” he says, “when people want to give up their appeals, it’s the only thing they can do to control their own fate. Sometimes, once that’s acknowledged, they change their minds.”

After years or decades of having every decision made for you, from where you live and when you go to sleep to when and what you eat and to whom you’re allowed to speak, simply offering a prisoner a significant say in their own lives, even if it’s to end it, may be for many too tempting to pass up. The prison system may, in other words, be offering a solution to a problem of its own creation. In medicine, this is called iatrogenesis—like treating nausea caused by chemotherapy, or doctors working to cure patients of bacteria they picked up in the hospital.

You could argue that, ultimately, it’s the prisoners’ own fault—that, unlike the patient in the hospital, the prisoner is in prison suffering what they’re suffering because of something he or she chose to do. And while that may often be true, it doesn’t reduce the duty of care the state owes its prisoners, equal in measure to what it owes its law-abiding patients.

Van Den Bleeker says he’s incurable and incorrigible, that he’s haunted by his urges, that it’s cruel to force him to continue to live. He’s not a sympathetic character, and it’s understandable that people wouldn’t want to expend too much energy, mental or otherwise, saving him from himself. But the case he’s made sounds very much like an example of what Radelet sees in American prisons. “Consensual executions,” he says, “are most often done out of depression and hopelessness.”

In civilized cultures, prisons are meant to remove people from society until they are no longer a danger to it. The very removal from society is a punishment, the severity of which is often overlooked when we get sidetracked about the comfort of the beds or the availability of satellite TV. The goal should be to fix these people so that they’re functional, social beings once more. But while that's in everybody's best interest, prison programs naturally fall short—possibly more often than not—though you’re not likely to find many legislators, outside a few districts in the US, who would argue that prison should be vengeful, forcing its inmates to abandon all hope. If a prisoner is so utterly hopeless as to find death the only viable solution, surely the prison has failed. And allowing prisoners to choose death, no matter how civilized a society like Belgium might make the process seem, is nothing more than a similarly hopeless acceptance of that failure.

Bert Archer is a Canadian author, journalist, travel writer, essayist and critic. He is the author of The End of Gay (and the death of heterosexuality).