Tagged: inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment

Kafka’s Penal Colony and Solitary Confinement Debate in the US

We are very excited to feature Prof. Michael B. Mushlin’s latest law review article in which he compares Kafka’s fictitious world of punishment to the current state of solitary confinement in the United States. Prof. Mushlin has extensive experience in the field of prisoner’s rights work and specific issues such as solitary confinement.

POST WRITTEN BY:  Erica Danielsen (’16), J.D. Pace Law School

Franz Kafka lived in the Austria-Hungarian empire, in what is now Czech Republic, and wrote fiction stories in German during the 20th century. In 1914 Kafka wrote In the Penal Colony, a story describing a torture and execution device used in a mythical prison’s operation system. The machine would carve the sentence of a condemned prisoner on his skin before killing him over the course of twelve hours. The use of this machine only came to an end when a “Traveler,” an outsider invited to the penal colony, condemned its use by expressing, “I am opposed to this procedure.” Without the Traveler having been allowed to enter and observe what occurred in the penal colony no change to the system would have taken place.

For the 100th Anniversary of Kafka’s work, Prof. Muslin wrote, “I Am Opposed To This Procedure:” How Kafka’s In the Penal Colony Illuminates the Current Debate About Solitary Confinement and Oversight of American Prisons. The article, which is published in the Oregon Law Review, compares the use of the penal colony’s machine to the current use of solitary confinement in American prisons. Both the penal colony’s machine and solitary confinement inflict great psychological and physical pain on the people subjected to it. Additionally, both are seen as essential to the operation of the prison system yet neither would see change without an outside perspective into its use.

This article first recounts Kafka’s story In the Penal Colony and describes how Kafka’s professional life as an attorney might have influenced his story. It then provides a description of the American prison system focusing on two important aspects: the massive use of solitary confinement and the lack of meaningful oversight. The article is then brought together with a discussion of how Kafka’s profound insights, so powerfully set out in In the Penal Colony, can help society today understand why prison doors must be opened to outside scrutiny and why the rampant use of solitary confinement in the United States must end just as the penal colony’s machine was put to an end.

Related Readings:

European Court of Human Rights Invalidates Life Sentence without Parole

The Grand Chamber of the European Court of Human Rights (ECHR) held this week that the UK’s whole life sentence violates Article 3 of the European Convention on Human Rights which prohibits “inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment.”

UK law provides a mandatory sentence of life imprisonment for murder, but the trial judge is required to set a minimum term of imprisonment, after which the prisoner may apply for release on license, or parole.  However, a judge may impose a “whole life order,” instead of a minimum term, if the murder is exceptionally serious.  Under such an order, the prisoner cannot be released except at the discretion of the UK Secretary of State if the prisoner is terminally ill or seriously incapacitated.  The grand chamber held that for a life sentence to be compatible with article 3, “there must be both a prospect of release and a possibility of review.”  This review should take place no later than twenty-five years after imposition of sentence and there should be periodic reviews thereafter.

The US Supreme Court has yet to go this far, of course.  In Miller v. Alabama, 132 S.Ct 2455 (2012),  the Court held that a life sentence without parole is unconstitutional only if imposed on a juvenile.

Read the full opinion of the ECHR and the press release.