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Life + 100 years

October 26, 2013

Yesterday went well at Shakespeare at Pendleton, when we spent most of our time talking about our values and fears, and listening to several men engage with Portia’s “quality of mercy” monologue. It was a great session, helping us to get to know and understand each other more. When we next meet, we are planning to talk about stories, and from there, we’ll get into a play.

The conversation I have been meditating on was with a new member of the group who wanted to tell me his sentence, life plus 100 years. I have decided from the very beginning that I am never going to ask what an inmate did to be behind bars, but I’m also open to having one share his experience at the time of his own choosing. When that happens, I will be reserved about what I am willing to share. I want to focus on the present and the future, not on the details of a person’s tragedy. So I don’t know what this man did to get a sentence of life plus 100 years.

I have been searching the Internet for the legal meaning of “life plus 100 years.” The inmate said that he would be in prison for 100 more years after he dies, but he said this ironically.

In history, decades after the 14th century Bible translator John Wycliffe had died, Pope Martin V ordered his body to be exhumed and his bones burned as a heretic. Clearly, that pope had an idea of being able to influence Wycliffe’s afterlife.

The phrase “life plus 100 year” reflects a residue of belief in an afterlife, but without giving any sense of the practicality of how such a sentence can really be served. In essence, of course, this sentence is to life without parole. But like Wycliffe’s post-mortem condemnation, I see a sentence of “life plus 100 years” to be a secular expression of a cultural desire for hell. Our legal system, obliquely, shows that it still wants hell to exist.

Certainly, Shakespeare wrote in a time when hell was regarded as real. His contemporary Christopher Marlowe ends his most famous play with sending Doctor Faustus to hell. Shakespeare is more reserved about representing hell itself, but there’s little doubt where Macbeth’s and Richard III’s enemies think they are going after death.

Since I don’t know the man’s crime, I don’t know what I think would be an appropriate sentence. But I reject the Orwellian language of sentencing a person to life plus 100 years. That is a desire for hell, and Shakespeare at Pendleton is anti-hell.

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