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Death Rights Behind Bars

Given 35 life terms, plus an extra 1,035 years, Martin Bryant will die in prison one way or another. But if he had his way, it would be sooner rather than later.

by Chris Shearer
Sep 23 2015, 12:00am

Photo by Julian Morgans

This article appears in The Incarceration Issue, a special edition of VICE Australia.

Given 35 life terms, plus an extra 1,035 years, Martin Bryant will die in prison one way or another. But if he had his way, it would be sooner rather than later. Since starting his sentence in 1996, the Port Arthur mass murderer has attempted suicide six times.

Which raises the question, should life-termers like Bryant have the option to end themselves?

Australia's leading euthanasia campaigner Dr. Philip Nitschke is for it. "I think this 'permanent incarceration of the most evil,' where any pretense at rehabilitation is abandoned, is done to satisfy some societal need for revenge," he says, likening it to state-sanctioned torture. "If we go down this path—and we shouldn't—I would argue there is an obligation on the state to allow, at the very least, the option of an elective peaceful death."

Nitschke's view is unpopular, with victim advocacy groups claiming it fails to consider the value of deterrence and punishment. Others liken it to a "get out of jail free" card.

"If you earn imprisonment and the disgrace of society and the loss of all the freedoms, you should let that happen to you and deal with it," says Sandra Betts, president of the Support After Murder group.

Freedom may be what it all boils down to. In a 2014 poll, 52.5 percent of Australians voted in favor of the death penalty for perpetrators of fatal terrorist attacks. So a majority are OK with prisoners being put to death, just not when it's their choice.

Either way, Australia's wider aversion to euthanasia makes it unlikely we'll entertain the option in the near future. "It is very hard to see this happening anywhere other than a country that has firmly established this as an option for the terminally ill," Nitschke says.

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