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Prison Inmates Deliberate about “Life and Death Decisions”

The following was found on the news page of the National Issues Forums Institute (NIFI.org/news). The post, authored by William DiMascio, director of the Pennsylvania Prison Society, describes a moderator training and NIF forums held at the State Correctional Institute at Huntingdon, Pennsylvania.

NIF-logoOn Wednesday and Thursday, February 27-28, we held what used to be called a Public Policy Institute (PPI) training at the State Correctional Institute at Huntingdon, Pennsylvania. We trained eight life sentenced prisoners and eight outside guests (a professor and students from Juniata College and four members of the Prison Society chapter of prison visitors). Our intention was manifold: first, we wanted to get forums going in the prison; second, we wanted to have our chapter trained so they could help reluctant prison administrators to see the interest and value in permitting the forums to take place; and third, to stimulate interest in public deliberation on the campus.

I am submitting this as a sort of moderator’s response to the forum. For your information, ten or twelve years ago we conducted PPIs in all of our 27 state prisons. Unfortunately, the trainings went wanting in the prisons because the activities staffs refused to let the trained moderators hold forums; we are hoping this time is different (new administrators, new atmosphere). The trainings didn’t go to waste: I have been told by formerly incarcerated men that when they were released and returned to their communities they were able to use the skills we imparted in their activities.

On the first day of our training, we used the framing on stopping mass shootings in our communities. The next day, with an expanded group of participants, we used the Life and Death Decisions book. We had about twelve life sentenced prisoners at this point.

As prisoners, the element of this issue that seemed most difficult was the decision making. As you might imagine, prisoners don’t make decisions on anything; they are told what to do and when. So, this book was especially challenging. Clearly the most common concern among men, who had all been convicted of homicides, was the belief that death was God’s prerogative! Virtually no one wanted to make the call on when to “pull the plug.” Cost was not a factor, as you might guess these folks weren’t accustomed to paying for anything. But many said their religion prevented them from calling this shot. Actually, I think they may have used that as an excuse to avoid having to make a decision as heavy as this.

In the end, the group decided to see if they would be permitted to develop living wills for the lifers. The state does have a hospice prison although most inmates are reluctant to want to go there. So some interesting questions arise from this: Should prisoners have a right to choose when to die via a living will? Should they be asked to decide the fate of family members on the outside who may reach the point where a call must be made?

I believe this was one of those fascinating forums that occur from time to time and that we should hear about. This stuff is not about esoterica; it is about life.

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Sandy Heierbacher
Sandy Heierbacher co-founded the National Coalition for Dialogue & Deliberation (NCDD) with Andy Fluke in 2002, with the 60 volunteers and 50 organizations who worked together to plan NCDD’s first national conference. She served as NCDD's Executive Director between 2002 and 2018. Click here for a list of articles and resources authored by Sandy.

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