I have been asked if I’d be interested in speaking at a planned conference on ‘Cruel and Unusual Punishments’, which sounds intriguing, although somewhat outside of my usual research interests. At the moment it is not at all clear that the conference will get funding to go ahead, and if it does whether the timescale will work with my own travel and availability. It’s strange writing the abstract for a paper that may never actually be written, as the particular nature of the conference is such that I will almost certainly only write it if the conference takes place and I am able to attend. (While grant applications can be similar, most I’ve been involved with have been for work that will be done, to some degree, whether funding is given or not.) Here, then, is the abstract for a paper that may never be written.
The Life Penalty: Foucault, Derrida, Bamber
This paper will examine the work of Michel Foucault and Jacques Derrida on the death penalty. Derrida’s late seminars on this topic have recently been published; while Foucault’s book Discipline and Punish is supplemented by his lecture courses La société punitive and the forthcoming Théories et institutions pénales, as well as shorter interventions, including an unpublished lecture delivered in Montreal in March 1976. While the death penalty is the focus of Derrida’s interventions, Foucault is most interested in the move away from this to imprisonment as the universal punishment, graduated only in temporal and spatial terms – type of institution and duration of sentence. This paper will use their work to think about what might be called ‘the life penalty’; that is, imprisonment without end. The specific focus will be so-called ‘whole life’ tariffs in the United Kingdom, especially looking at the case of Jeremy Bamber. Bamber was sentenced to five life sentences for the murder of his father, mother, sister and nephews in 1985, and told by the Home Secretary in 1994 that he would never be released. Bamber is unique in that he is the only such prisoner in the UK who continues to maintain his innocence. Looking both at the complexities of the case, and at the principle itself, this contribution thinks about the absence of the death penalty in the UK, and its effective parallel, ‘the life penalty’.
A couple of years ago I wrote a piece on the execution of Troy Davis that also mentioned the Jeremy Bamber case. You can read that piece, which sketches some of the argument I might be making at more length, here.