Disappearing the inconvenient

comment1Alan (but everybody calls him Allah) spends the majority of his time on the street of Temple Bar. He is gracious when it comes sharing his wisdom and offering advice, in return for a cup of tea. On occasion, mid-cup, he is approached by Gardaí and asked to ‘move along’. ‘They think they can solve homelessness by sending us down side alleys’ is one of his favourite lines, along with ‘Tea is better with whiskey’. He is right about both.

Today, on the 10th of October, we celebrate (for want of a better expression) the 12th World Day against the Death Penalty. In previous years, the World Coalition against the Death Penalty has focused on a specific country where prospects for those who are considered deserving of this punishment are particularly bleak. Last year, for example, the focus was on the Caribbean, where actual execution rates are low, but anti-abolitionist feeling is strong.  This year, however, the chosen focus is on mental health.

At first glance, the link between mental health and the death penalty seems to require a stretch of the imagination. In fact, mental health rarely comes into debate about the death penalty or indeed vice versa. However, Mental Health America, estimates that five to 10% percent of all death row inmates suffer from a severe mental illness. Furthermore, the UN recently reported that though almost all countries surveyed had laws in place to protect those who plead ‘insanity’ from the death penalty, very few countries offered constitutional protection for  people with other personality disorders or intellectual disabilities. This means vulnerable people are susceptible to being put to death by their state in the name of justice.

Not only does the focus on mental health this year support the argument that no justice system is safe from judicial error, it highlights one important point of the abolitionist movement; the effect of the death penalty is not the punishment of bad people or dealing with a problem head on, it uses vulnerable members of society as scapegoats and banishes inconvenient people.

It is easy for Europe (perhaps with the exception of Belarus) to claim the high moral ground when it comes to the death penalty. However, part of the 12th World day’s campaign is to point out that ‘prisons are becoming the mental institutions of the 21st Century.’ So here’s my point; it is arguable that the death penalty is merely a convenient way of disposing of those people society would prefer weren’t there. But Irish society has alternative but equally effective ways of disappearing the inconvenient.

Irish history is full of nooks and crannies where unwed mothers, orphans, elderly, people who are ‘fond of the drink’ or ‘suffer from their nerves’ were kept, not out of harm’s way but out of the way of Irish society. And at every report of an unmarked grave, every scandal and story about schools and work houses, we tut and shake our heads at our dark past. But a glance around Irish society makes it clear that these times are not over, nor is our disappearing act.

Unemployment reportedly dropped to 11.2% this August and the downward trend continues. In a recent Irish Times article however, Fintan O Toole attempts to account for the 70,000 people between the age of 15 and 44 who disappeared in 2012 and 2013. He concludes that the main reason for their disappearance, most likely to Australia, the UK and the US, is ‘largely because they’re browned off’

Mental health is another area involved in this disappearing act. Compared to the dire conditions in mental institutions in virtually every town in Ireland in the 20th century, where ‘experiments’  on the inmates were the norm and more patients meant more profit, the situation today seem relatively promising. However, this illusion is pretty easily shattered. The European Child Safety Alliance report found that Ireland has the highest rate of suicide in young females across Europe and the second highest rate of suicide in young males. While this enormous problem fails to be addressed, the people who represent this problem end up in unsuitable mental health facilities, crowded prisons, or as part of the sad statistics.

My last example of the conveniently disappeared inconvenient must come from the Irish prison system. The Council of Europe’s anti-torture watchdog, the Committee for the Prevention of Torture and Inhuman or Degrading  Treatment or Punishment (CPT) visited Irish prisons in February last year. Their report raised concerns about the situation in older prisons due to worsening overcrowding and poor conditions and outlines allegations of serious assaults on inmates by prison officers and almost daily stabbings and attacks in Mountjoy prison, where 632 men are packed into a space for a maximum of 540.

The Irish state does not execute the people who pose a problem for society. However we cannot claim to be overly concerned about what happens to them instead, particularly when we are more comfortable without them.

The truth is that homelessness is not solved by sending homeless people down side alleys. Emigration is not a solution to unemployment, suicide is not an option to ending depression, silence and secrecy will not solve society’s problems, nor will disappearing the inconvenient people who represent these problems. And tea is better with whiskey.