Recently, two vastly different unrelated events that happened in different parts of the world in 1972-73, made it to the papers on the same morning. And both raise fundamental questions about human attitudes to crime and criminals.
Albert Woodfox was a young man in 1970, (he is the same age as me) when he was convicted for his role in an armed robbery. While in prison, he was blamed for the death of a prison guard which he has denied. Since April 1972, has been in solitary confinement. This means “confined for 23 hours a day, with an hour outside his cell to “walk alone along the tier on which his cell is located”, and ‘exercise permitted three times a week with restrictions on “personal property, reading materials, access to legal resources, work, and visitation rights”. After repeated appeals by human rights groups, the judge has ordered his release. What kind of punishment is this? It is reported that an estimated 80,000 prisoners are in solitary confinement in the US. Although increasingly opposed by most countries and the UN, its proponents say it is needed to protect other prisoners and staff. But 43 years???? Is there any crime that can deserve this? Are efforts made to counsel these persons??
The second story was on the man who assaulted Aruna Shanbaug, the KEM hospital nurse who was strangulated and raped in 1973. She died recently, released for the other type of confinement after 42 years. At the time, for whatever may have been the reasons, although autopsy revealed the rape, the assailant, Sohanlal Valmiki, was not charged with rape. Also, the punishment in those days was not what it is today. He was sentenced to 7 years imprisonment and served his term in jail. And he moved onto oblivion. This 70+ old man, struggling to exist as a daily wager, cycling long distances to work l its disadvantages, he found protection in obscurity. He probably had accepted his fate to live out a life in a permanently deprived state till nature had run its course. But that ended when a few weeks ago, Aruna Shanbaugh died. The ever active media, always looking for sensational news, hunted him down to the village in Eastern UP. And now they are people out there baying for his blood – he has been terminated from his job, and there are moves afoot to re-open the case and file rape charges against him. And Sohanlal Valmiki is now condemned to death by starvation.
These kinds of cases, here in India or elsewhere in the world, leave me thinking, about the human race. Is society always so retributive? Is there no humanity in us? And what is the sense of satisfaction from this kind of revenge?