Thursday, 17 October 2013

Two sides of a coin

A and I have a common interest (among many others) and that is watching real life documentaries or those that question our beliefs against fiction. 

Admittedly A prefers the latter more than I do evidenced by the avid watching of a documentary that questioned the myth of mermaids against them existing as a result of evolution.  

This week I watched programmes about female prisons in the USA, where Trevor MacDonald visited Rockville Women's Prison in Indiana. 

The first thing that struck me was the grass in the outside areas with benches, not something you see in UK prisons in the main. Not that I thought they deserved it or not; it was merely an observation. They have only 3 hours a day outside, more or less than some UK prisons and it houses 1800 women. 

There are obviously women in the prison who have committed very violent crimes such as murder and who are not repentant but Trevor chose to concentrate on 2 women both of which gave me food for thought and some would say provided 2 sides to a coin - one story you may understand and another may spark very strong feelings. 

The first replayed to a women who had been convicted of murdering her 3 month old baby 17 years earlier. As she tells it she had difficulty controlling her emotions particularly anger. 

On the day she killed the baby as a result of shaken baby syndrome she had been talking to her mother about her excitement of his first Christmas and she had bought his first Christmas stocking. Later that day he cried and cried, she lost her temper and he died. 

She immediately called 911 and told them without being asked what has happened in a bid to save his life. Not that it wouldn't have been discovered but she signed her own prison sentence voluntarily and pleaded guilty. 

I am not saying that I felt much sympathy for this woman. What she is guilty of is considered to be one of the most heinous crimes and it evokes strong feelings in everyone. What struck me was her extremely mild nature and in a different setting and without the prison uniform you would never have suspected. Of course that means nothing  as looks and manner do not a murderer make. 

The story continued and she explained that her first two children had been taken from her as a result of abuse. This left me with some thoughts: did she think it unfair that her two children were taken from her at the time, did she feel she was a good mother at that time and that the social services had made a mistake, what possessed her to have a third child when she hadn't been able to care for the first two? 

And what if the social services system?  I am not saying the UK equivalent is better than it's US counterpart but in the UK her third child is more likely to have been removed from her care at birth to prevent such a thing occurring, based in her previous record. 

She had tried to commit suicide 5 months into her sentence because she couldn't live with the guilt. The slightly cynical part of my brain wondered whether it was more a realisation that the rest of her life would be spent in prison but then I recalled the immediate admittance of her actions to the paramedics. 

I couldn't say I felt much empathy for this woman, after all I would guess thT very few people in prison for death of a child by abuse set out to kill a child. 

That was the story on one side of the coin and it would likely evoke a much stronger negative reaction than the next woman's story.

The second story was of a 72 year old woman who looks like your average doting jolly Grandmother. The first time we see her she is making a patchwork quilt for a local charity. This woman is in prison for murdering 6 people. Again, to look at her you would never guess that is the case. 

We are introduced to her as the woman who escaped from prison and was not caught for 38 years. She changed her surname, keeping her first name and changed her social security number by one digit and with these 2 actions she was able to build a new life, get married, have 2 children and 8 grandchildren. When she was caught the local policeman who had known her all this time could jot believe it. In that time she had not committed one crime and her family knew nothing of her previous life. 

When she was caught she did not deny it and her family and friends do not believe that she intentionally killed 6 people. She claims she is not guilty of murder but accepts that as a result of her actions 6 people died. She knows she is unlikely to never see freedom again. 

When she was 15 she lived away from her family home after having been abused as a child. Being abused again and locked in a house she planned to set a small fire in the house and escape when she and 6 others had to evacuate. Except the fire spread out of control and 6 people died. Instead of running she suffered severe burns trying to get back into the house to save people. 

Essentially, yes she killed 6 people but there was no intention to cause any harm  to them. She accepts they died by her actions. 

While murder is murder my reaction to this woman was one of sympathy. I can understand her need to escape and at 15 years old and scared do you think through the potential pitfalls of setting a small fire?  

Is her crime as heinous as the woman who killed her baby by accident? Or is it murder regardless of the reasons behind it?  Obviously the first woman did not intend to kill her child so that could be argued to be a mistake to but is that worse than killing people unintentionally by fire because of the previous abuse record? 

Is it a natural human reaction to consider the death of a baby more heinous than the second story?  Of course. 

Yet, the second woman although understandably feeling she was not guilty of intentional murder then escaped from a prison and started a new life. There is obvious guilt for the results of her actions when 15 but does such an escape demonstrate an unwillingness to pay for the results of her actions. Or should she not have received such a strict sentence originally? 

While I do believe that the UK imposes much lighter prison sentences than deserved and that we should be much stricter as the US are the grandmother's story left me feeling that at worst she should have been found guilty of manslaughter with a chance of parole. 

Having said all of that one cannot get the full story in 2 hours worth of programmes and all of the facts may paint different stories entirely. 

It would be interesting to get a view from different countries as those opinions will be based on the reactions relating to crime of their counties governments, beliefs and traditions. So tell me, what are your opinions of these cases? 

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