Should we help prisoners to kill themselves?

My latest post is up on Big Think, where I examine the ethics of a convicted rapist facing life imprisonment. He is requesting that he be put to death.

In this short piece, I look at whether we should or shouldn’t help him die. Prisoner ethics and the morality surrounding punishment is something I find incredibly important.


  1. Alverant says

    Something like this was on Law & Order. What it boiled down to was if a prisoner could dictate his own punishment. There’s also a case to be made of whether the criminal knows something, perhaps other victims or perhaps about other crimes, knowledge that would be gone after death. I’ll have to say “no” but I admit to wanting a criminal to take themselves out so we don’t have to worry about them again.

    • Tauriq Moosa says

      Agreed, removing themselves so we don’t have to waste resources is, as I indicated, the most potent argument. I would be in favour of that, if there was evidence to suggest that, given a cost-benefit analysis, it would free up resources. Unfortunately, it also takes a lot to kill them (enough, strangely, that it does warrant comparisons to life-long imprisonment because of how long the process is for death-row).

      • Alverant says

        Rope is cheap. If he wants to die that badly, he can do it on his own and hang himself.

        • leftwingfox says

          Have you seen “How to Kill a Human Being?” Former Conservative MP Michael Portillo seeks a better way of killing prisoners than lethal injection. He determines that nitrogen asphyxiation is cheap, effective, and humane: victims feel first euphoric, then fall unconscious, then dead.

          Fast forward to 46 minutes in, to see the pro-death penalty advocate in the US reject this wholeheartedly, because killers should be made to suffer, and that a euphoric ending isn’t justice.

  2. juniperann says

    I’ve thought about this and not come up with an easy solution.

    On the one hand, I believe that all people should be allowed, if it is possible, to choose when their lives end. I’m OK with forcing people into psych care as a precondition to assisted suicide, to make sure that they would still choose the same thing given optimal psych care. I’m OK with a mandatory (say, 3 month) waiting period, which can be waived under certain conditions. But beyond that, I think that all adults who say, “This life is not worth living” should be respected. It’s a bit trickier for minors, who may not understand death and the future in the way that an adult would, but I think that if a minor and his/her guardians all agree that “This life is not worth living”, then that should be respected.

    That respect includes prisoners. I think right-to-die is a human right, and prisoners should not be excluded from humanity.

    On the other hand, I think there’s a lot of potential for abuse. We know that prisoners are regularly abused by guards and other inmates. I’d hate to find out that a prisoner “chose” suicide because the alternative was a living hell of harassment deliberately intended to drive the prisoner to suicide. I am certain that that would occur at least once. I wouldn’t be surprised if it became common, and the public just shrugged their shoulders like they do at prison rape.

    Also, I doubt there’s a prisoner in the U.S. who wouldn’t benefit from good psych care, and there’s far too little access. If the only way to get your psych care is to claim suicidal intent, then there may be claims to suicidal intent that are driven more by a desperate desire for psych care than actual suicidal intent. And maybe, once you get that ball rolling, it’s easier to let it roll than to stop it.

  3. Ysanne says

    TBH, I see 2 problems with the whole argument:
    1) That the sole aim and purpose of punishing a crime is assumed to be making the perpetrator suffer on a scale commensurate to their victim. That’s really just a nice way of explaining carefully considered revenge. Feels “fair” on a base instinct level, but imho counterproductive in the long term without a rehabilitation aspect.
    2) The assumption that the crimes that prisoners often face from other inmates is an acceptable and integral part of a prison sentence. By this, the dirty and immoral job of making an inmate actually suffer is knowingly shifted to his fellow inmates; condoning and even creating conditions that promote such treatment of prisoners is not much more moral than directly ordering it.

    Personally, I think that people who want to die and still do so when they receive proper psychological support should be allowed to do so. Making a prisoner suffer extra-hard extra-long helps no one (cf. ineffectiveness of harsh punishment as a deterrent for major crimes); keeping them from committing more crimes does.

  4. leftwingfox says


    We cannot trust the state to apply the death penalty rationally and consistently. How much worse would it be if we let prisons, which often have epidemic levels of abuse, rape and violence, administer this as a backdoor death penalty?