For Catholic theologian St. Augustine, suicide was an issue of grave concern. Writing City of God in the fifth century C.E., St. Augustine worried that Catholics would kill themselves en masse in order to become martyrs. He thus used scripture to argue unequivocally that “Christians have no authority to commit suicide in any circumstances.” According to St. Augustine, “We take the command ‘You shall not kill’ as applying to human beings, that is, other persons and oneself. For to kill oneself is to kill a human being.” Rather than kill oneself in response to hardship, St. Augustine emphasized the righteousness of suffering. St. Augustine reasoned, “Christians worship the true God and they yearn for a heavenly country; will they not have more reason to refrain from the crime of suicide, if God’s providence subjects them for a time to their enemies for their probation or reformation?” Thus, “Greatness of spirit is not the right term to apply to one who has killed himself because he lacked strength to endure hardships… we rightly ascribe greatness to a spirit that has the strength to endure a life of misery instead of running away from it.”
Today, the debate over the relative merits of death versus protracted suffering often manifests itself in discussions of whether those convicted of particularly serious crimes should receive the death penalty or life in prison. For example, during the trial earlier this year of Boston Marathon bomber Dzhokhar Tsarnaev, media outlets debated whether Tsarnaev should be put to death or spend the rest of his life at the notorious federal prison, ADX Florence. In this CBS news clip (link: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=HM854gQJi7s), reporters interview a former warden of ADX Florence, Bob Hood. Describing a prison where inmates spend twenty-three hours per day alone in their cells and one hour in a small exercise cage, Hood proclaims that ADX Florence “was not designed with humanity in mind.” He continues, “If they’re really looking for revenge and know the system, they should be asking for life imprisonment at the supermax.” The reporters conclude, “Death is easier than life at the federal supermax.” Like St. Augustine, many who weighed in on the Tsarnaev case believed suffering to be more powerful than death. Of course, rather than viewing suffering as an indication of religious righteousness, these people wanted Tsarnaev to suffer as punishment.
Photo of a cell at ADX Florence
Indeed, the suffering of incarceration can be so intense that many inmates do attempt suicide. Tellingly, suicide prevention is a main goal of the mental health division of the Federal Bureau of Prisons. In fact, their website’s mental health page talks exclusively about suicide and suicide prevention, emphasizing that their suicide rate is lower than the general American population and that prison staff are “ever-vigilant in their efforts to both prevent suicide and respond rapidly to potential crises.” While no other mental health resources are mentioned, the website includes instructions for family members and friends concerning how to alert prison staff of a possible suicide risk and links to three websites of organizations that work in the field of suicide prevention. It is a bit perplexing why suicide prevention should be such a grave concern of a prison system that is not averse to extreme cruelty (see description of ADX Florence above) and that is often perfectly comfortable carrying out the death penalty. Perhaps overly pessimistically, I imagine that prisons are mostly worried about avoiding lawsuits. In any event, if a prisoner is going to die, the American prison system is determined that it not be on his/her own terms.
However, not everyone agrees that prisoners should be barred from choosing to end their own lives. While prisoners suffering terminal illnesses (physical or psychological) and in severe amounts of pain are not eligible for physician-assisted suicide in the United States, in Belgium they are. Earlier this year, serial rapist Frank Van Den Bleeken requested to be euthanized, citing an incurable psychological disorder. The case incited international debate. In January, the BBC published a collection of short opinion pieces on the topic. Philosopher Rebecca Roache of the University of London argued Van den Bleeken should be allowed access to euthanasia: “If we view euthanasia as a type of medical treatment—as there is good reason to do, at least in Belgium, where it is implemented by medical professionals in response to medical problems—then Van den Bleeken should be treated like any free citizen. This is because prisoners, in any civilized country, are not denied access to medical treatment as part of their punishment.” By contrast, Daniel Sokol, a lawyer and medical ethicist, said that euthanasia for prisoners carries a “whiff of the death penalty,” “a form of abandonment,” and a “stain on civilised society.” Instead, Sokol advocated increasing psychiatric care in prisons. Like St. Augustine, Sokol exhibits a staunch commitment to the commandment, “You shall not kill.” The American prison system, of course, does not operate on this principal; thirty-five inmates were put to death in the United States in 2014. Yet suicide prevention remains a principal preoccupation of American prisons. Ultimately, the American prison system is determined that the way inmates live, die, and suffer will not be on their own terms.
“Former Warden Says Death Is Better Than Life in Supermax.” CBS Boston. April 22, 2015. Accessed November 16, 2015. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=HM854gQJi7s.
“Mental Health.” Federal Bureau of Prisons. Accessed November 16, 2015. http://www.bop.gov/inmates/custody_and_care/mental_health.jsp.
Rodriguez, Sal. “Inside ADX Supermax: ‘A Bloody Nightmare.’” Solitary Watch. Accessed December 10, 2015. http://solitarywatch.com/2013/09/12/harold-cunningham/.
“Should a Belgian murderer be allowed euthanasia?” BBC News. January 7, 2015. Accessed November 16, 2015. http://www.bbc.com/news/magazine-30708585.
St. Augustine. City of God. Translated by Henry Bettenson. London: Penguin, 1972.
 St. Augustine, City of God, translated by Henry Bettenson (London: Penguin, 1972), 32.
 St. Augustine, City of God, 32.
 Ibid., 35.
 Ibid., 33.
 “Former Warden Says Death is Better Than Life in Supermax,” CBS Boston, April 22, 2015, accessed November 16, 2015, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=HM854gQJi7s.
 “Former Warden Says Death is Better Than Life in Supermax.”
 Sal Rodriguez, “Inside ADX Supermax: ‘A Bloody Nightmare,’ Solitary Watch, accessed December 10, 2015, http://solitarywatch.com/2013/09/12/harold-cunningham/.
 “Mental Health,” Federal Bureau of Prisons, accessed November 16, 2015, http://www.bop.gov/inmates/custody_and_care/mental_health.jsp.
 “Should a Belgian murderer be allowed euthanasia?” BBC News, January 7, 2015, accessed November 16, 2015, http://www.bbc.com/news/magazine-30708585.
 “Should a Belgian murderer be allowed euthanasia?”