If you were facing life imprisonment, would you choose assisted suicide as the humane option? We spoke to a prisoner who shares that view.
Garry is facing life imprisonment in New South Wales (NSW), Australia, for a crime he says he did not commit. His defense lawyer has told him that, at best, he could get ten to fifteen years in prison. His case has a non-publication order on it, so we can’t reveal his name or the precise nature of the allegations.
But we can tell you that Garry believes a person, like himself, who is facing long-term incarceration and the loss of their world should have the right to die.
Suicide in Prison
“Why are we denied the right to choose to do what will eventually happen anyway?” Garry questioned. “If they want my life, they can have it. Since I was jailed, I haven’t wanted to be alive anyway.”
According to Garry, he’s not alone. There are many inmates who see death as a valid option. And most are innocent, according to Garry, “… people facing charges for things that didn’t happen or they didn’t do.”
Life on the Inside
Being locked up for a serious crime that you didn’t commit takes its toll. Garry had a mental breakdown in the maximum security prison where he is being kept and was put into a safe cell, naked, under 24-hour suicide watch.
Garry says that whilst he was in the cell being monitored by a CCTV camera, a prison guard actually told him how he could successfully take his own life. In fact, guards give out this sort of advice all the time, according to Garry.
Suicide is already common in prison, it’s just not talked about. “I just want what is already a done thing informally, to have formal recognition and lose the shame aspect,” Garry told Sydney Criminal Lawyers.
So how would this all work? As Garry sees it, they could simply add a termination tick box on the nurse help request form.
From there, an individual would discuss their decision to die with a prison psychiatrist, and then there would be a cooling off period to give them the chance to change their mind.
If there were any living relatives on the outside, it would be mandatory for the inmate to call them to explain why they’d made their decision.
The assisted suicide would take place after all of this. A strong sedative that depresses heart and lung functions would be administered. And this would “let the guy go to his last sleep,” Garry said.
The method would provide dignity for the individual, Garry explained, as well as stop the trauma that happens to prisoners whose cellmate decides to hang themselves or bleed themselves out in the middle of the night.
The Case of Frank Van Den Bleeken
The controversial idea of assisted prison suicide is not new. It made world headlines in September 2014, when a 50-year-old inmate in Belgium was granted permission by an appeal’s court to have doctors take his life.
Frank Van Den Bleeken was imprisoned for multiple rape and murder offenses in the 1980s. At the time of the court’s decision, he’d already served 30 years behind bars.
Van Den Bleeken first requested euthanasia in 2011 citing “unbearable psychological anguish.” He could not control his violent sexual urges and had no prospect of release.
In 2011, he requested a transfer to a specialist psychiatric center in the Netherlands, but said that if that could not happen, he wanted a mercy killing.
Belgium’s Federal Euthanasia Commission rejected the initial euthanasia request on the basis that they wanted to consider every possible treatment on offer before approving the drastic measure.
Euthanasia in Belgium
In 2002, euthanasia was legalized in Belgium for cases where a patient’s condition is incurable or constant. Since then, about 1,400 people a year have chosen the option.
By 2013, euthanasia requests in Belgium had risen to 1,800, and while the majority of cases were from people suffering cancer, there were around 67 requests from people citing psychological disorders.
Assisted Dying for Mental Anguish
Two cases in Belgium came under scrutiny in 2013, as mental anguish, rather than terminal illness, was the reason for the assisted suicides.
In January 2013, 45-year-old identical twins Marc and Eddy Verbessem were granted the right to die. The two, who were already deaf, were facing going blind due to a genetic disorder.
And in October of that year, Nathan Verhelst, a transgender male, asked to die as he’d undergone several failed gender reassignment operations.
Fifteen other inmates had also requested assisted suicide on the same grounds as Van Den Bleeken. But the nation had only ever allowed the procedure on terminally ill inmates.
There was widespread debate about the validity of the decision to let Van Den Bleeken die, as mental anguish was the specific reason for it. He was suffering constant violent sexual urges, as well as the prospect of life in a cell.
Dr. Iain Brassington from the University of Manchester argued that if assisted suicide is permissible, then mental anguish should be taken into account. If a person is motivated by psychological distress, the doctor said, why should this be “any more morally troubling than seeking assistance to die for any other reason?”
An argument against assisting the Belgium inmate to die was that assisted suicide would allow him to escape punishment.
The sisters of a woman Van Den Bleeken raped and murdered while temporarily out of prison in 1989 condemned the decision, saying he should “rot in his cell.”
Van Den Bleeken’s assisted suicide never ended up going ahead. Just days before the procedure, the doctors involved pulled out due to legal reasons. Van Den Bleeken was transferred to a Dutch psychiatric center sometime thereafter.
The Situation in Australia
Euthanasia is currently illegal in Australia. On May 25, 1995, the Northern Territory became the first jurisdiction in the world to legalize euthanasia, but the law was subsequently voided by the federal Euthanasia Laws Act of 1997.
The death penalty has been abolished for decades—NSW was the last jurisdiction to outlaw it completely in 1985.
So it seems highly unlikely that inmates in NSW will be granted their wish of assisted suicides any time soon.
For a Crime He Didn’t Commit
For Garry, there’s an inherent problem in a justice system that allows a defendant a 25 percent reduction on their sentence if they plead guilty.
Even if they’re innocent, they can serve their time and leave prison with a criminal record. But if the person wants to clear their name, they have to wait around on remand and face an even heavier penalty—sometimes fighting for years against a well-resourced prosecution.
Why does the current justice system allow people to be “stuck in that kind of mess, looking at a life of stigma and shame for a crime they didn’t do?” Garry asked. “Why is allowing them to opt out of life worse than the pressure to have them take a guilty plea, regardless of guilt?”