Guyana is currently discussing the issue of corporal punishment and the death penalty which remains on the statutes but which has not been applied for more than 15 years. Corporal punishment remains a contentious issue because there are both parents and teachers who firmly believe that the abolition of this form of discipline could see a further breakdown in law and order.
I hold the view that a few lashes never killed anyone. In fact, they helped some of us walk the straight and narrow path out of fear of pain. As a student at the Government Training College for Teachers many decades ago, there was a chapter in psychology that dealt with the pleasure-pain system of reward.
I was taught that social scientists in their study of behavioral patterns found that if a child is rewarded for good performance then that child would continue to perform at the desired level and even beyond. It also found that the application of some pain, be it physical or emotional, served as a spur for greater performance.
Way back then when corporal punishment was not unusual in the society there was greater discipline; no child would be heard using the foulest language in the presence of adults. No child would walk past an adult without a greeting and certainly, no child dared offer rudeness to an adult. The society was a better place.
As a result of that culture, someone coined the phrase that it takes a community to raise a child. I happened to be raised in many communities and in each I was under scrutiny by just about every adult. I learnt to be respectful of my elders. Any sign of disrespect was painful.
It was the same in school. Teachers knew the children who had potential and stuck to them like flies on a fly trap. The laggards were prodded constantly. Today, everyone of these have done something for themselves. No one left school an illiterate because teachers ensured that they all learnt to read and to write. There was always corporal punishment to ensure that the best possible effort was made by each child.
The courts also saw justification in administering corporal punishment to the more seasoned criminal. I once met a ‘regular’ in Beterverwagting who was given a whipping. He spoke to me about it and I can swear that he never returned to prison.
In Bartica, there was the cinema operator named Johnny. He was given the ‘cat’ which has since been banned in Guyana. He stayed out of jail.
The cat was really bad. One day during a visit to the Mazaruni Prisons there was a football game. This was way back in the early 1970s. One of the prisoners involved in the game suddenly pulled up and coughed up blood. I do not know what has happened to him.
Then there was the notorious Coltress who reportedly chopped a policeman who was on duty outside State House. When I met him at Bartica in the early 1970s he could not have been more than 45 but he looked 60. He too got a dose of the cat. He died relatively early, no more 58. He too turned from his wicked ways.
Capital punishment, according to the late Desmond Hoyte, was a deterrent. It ensured that the person never committed another crime. However, that is a different kettle of fish. I am not opposed to the death penalty but I sometimes wonder at the level of investigation and trial that would lead to such a sentence.
Just this week I happened to read a book titled ‘The Innocent Man.’ It told a story about two men in Oklahoma who were sentenced to death on contrived evidence. As I read the book I saw how the police contrived evidence to convict Ronald Williamson and Dennis Fritz even as they knew that they were not involved in the crime.
Williamson escaped execution by five days but it was eleven years before he could be exonerated. It was a similar story for another man named Calvin Lee Scott who also spent 20 years of a 25-year jail sentence. He was exonerated on DNA evidence in 2003.
Then there is the story of Rubin ‘Hurricane’ Carter, a professional boxer in New Jersey. He spent 20 years in jail trying to clear his name of a murder he never committed. A trip to the Google site would detail the stories of these men.
The stories all had a common thread. There was a reliance on confessions forced out of the suspect. The supporting evidence was either non-existent of grossly inadequate.
The principle is that it is better for 99 guilty men to go free than for one innocent man to go to the gallows. In Guyana in recent times there seemed to have been a reliance on confessions and the courts have often been left with no choice but to throw out the confession. When that is done the case collapses.
However, as in the case of the men about whom I read there could be a court that would accept a confession regardless of how it is obtained. That is my reservation about the death penalty.
But when all is said and done there are those who believe that crime is on the up because there is no real deterrent. Desmond Hoyte is credited with eradicating the scourge of kicking down the door by hanging the perpetrators.
Guyana is not ready for abolition because there are too many people hurting. And the increase in the level of illiteracy is not helping the cause. When people cannot reason, as is the case of the illiterate, then there must be something to make them take notice.
Unfortunate that the something is a finality.
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I have been doing columns since 1988. I have been a major columnist with the Catholic Standard, Stabroek News, Kaieteur... more