Dante and the death penalty: Thanks to Arts and Letters for this piece on what Dante has to teach us concerning the death penalty. The author's point is that Dante was concerned with the contrapasso as the best method of inflicting true pain on the damned; by hitting the sinner with what got him there in the first place. Whereas we treat all our prisoners alike (except for length of sentence and degree of security), Dante wanted each sinner to have his punishment individualized to match the sin he was in hell for (leaving aside for effect the argument that it's more likely to be a combination of sins). The author provides the example of the McVeigh execution and how not even the families of the victims could agree as to what was most appropriate for him. Some wanted him to suffer as the victims did, some wanted remorse, some didn't know what they wanted. It seems that the death penalty, although certainly harsh in its overall effect, is considered too easy vis-a-vis the physical impact on the criminal (simple needle in the arm vs. stabbing, drowning or explosions). Imprisonment, as we now know it, also seems pretty cushy (libraries, recreation, civil rights). Bill O'Reilly advocates a return to "hard labor" to at least get some sweat equity out of the imprisonment.
What it all boils down to is the essential unanswered question: punishment vs. reform? The Quakers thought the "penitentiary" would provide the solace necessary for the prisoner to reflect and pray, thus becoming repentant. It turns out it just made them crazy. The failure of this style of imprisonment led to what we see today, although at the time, the penitentiary was viewed as a giant step forward over the fractured, unorganized jail system that existed at the time which usually led to prisoners being let out without concern over trying to improve them, thereby providing no real relief from crime (the prisoners could often get "better" after discussing what they did wrong with some other similarly-situated cons).
It therefore seems logical that for all prisoners, other than those in for life or on death row, some reform is necessary. If we want to decrease crime, then we need those who are incarcerated not to repeat when they are released. This then leads one to look to a mixture of "hard labor" (punishment) with some rehabiliation included. If one is in for life or on death row, reform would appear useless (unless you want a more peaceful prisoner to decrease in-house violence) and the state should see fit to make the prisoner's life a living "Inferno". While Dante had the right philosophical idea, can you imagine budgeting for gold cloaks encased in lead?