Ariel Castro’s suicide is no tragedy

Ohio captor ‘needed suicide watch’: http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/world-us-canada-23967581

Ariel Castro, the man who kept three young women captive in his house in Ohio for several years, was found hanged in his cell on Tuesday. According to the above news report:

The prosecutor who tried Castro called him a “coward” unable to withstand “a small portion” of what he had inflicted.

But Mr Weintraub told Cleveland newspaper the Plain Dealer: “He’s still a human being. This is still a civilised society.”

Frankly, this situation recalls the Arthur Hugh Clough couplet, “Thou shalt not kill, but needst not strive / Officiously to keep alive”, from his poem The Latest Decalogue. Ariel Castro is not the first person to commit an extremely heinous crime, or several, to kill himself when the game is up and he’s facing a lifetime paying for his (or occasionally her) crimes, or death, along with public exposure and humiliation; one recalls Fred West, Harold Shipman, Wolfgang Priklopil, and back in the 1940s, a guy called Adolf in a bunker in Berlin. None of those deaths are considered tragedies, except where the criminal took some of his secrets to the grave with him (as with West), so there is no reason why this should be.

Also from Castro’s lawyer:

Prison authorities denied Castro permission to receive independent mental counselling, even though he had previously contemplated suicide and was likely to suffer depression after his life sentence, Mr Weintraub told Reuters news agency.

“We were never provided any explanation” for being denied independent mental health care, he said. “We don’t know what the rationale was, to take him off suicide watch.”

Probably the reason was that whoever assessed him thought that his ‘depression’ was no more than the normal reaction to his situation: being reduced from owner and sole warder of his own private prison for innocent young women to being a common criminal at the beginning of a life sentence in a big boys’ prison. It would be a source of mental distress or despair, but that is not a mental health disorder, it’s a normal human emotion (much as it may be tempting to assume that someone like Castro does not have those) and does not make anyone but him responsible for his death any more than if he had committed suicide on the outside.

The anger at how Castro was able to kill himself really reflects anger that he has put himself beyond any person’s ability to punish him, even though he had been in line for the death penalty before his sentence because his actions caused one of the three captives to lose the baby she was carrying (which was Castro’s). The fact that he’s not escaped from prison alive but is now dead does not stop some people assuming he has escaped any punishment; the fact is that he is in the afterlife and is not swanning around on a beach in Mexico.

It is, of course, a bad thing that people in prison kill themselves, and in the case of prisoners with serious mental health problems and those who have clearly expressed a desire to commit suicide, they should be prevented by all reasonable means. That raises the question of what is reasonable and what is simply oppressive or even constitutes torture, such as removing most of their clothing and anything that could possibly be used to that end, such that they are left on their own with nothing to do for weeks or months. A better way to reduce prison suicides is to make sure inmates can maintain family contact, reduce idleness by providing education and work, eliminate pointless and oppressive rules (such as non-contact family visits, which are the norm in many US prisons, including jails where people awaiting trial are held), and tackle vindictive staff behaviour and bullying. In short, let the prison not be a hell-hole, which is difficult to sell to voters.

However, none of this seems to be the reason Ariel Castro committed suicide. He was a bad man who knew the game was up, a man once powerful, in his own small way, now rendered powerless. He was a high-profile offender whose death will make a lot of people feel cheated, and might well provoke changes to rules to stop the same thing happening again, which will only make life more difficult for other prisoners, when we should just accept that these things happen.

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