Prison Killings and Death Penalty Legislation

AuthorPeter C. Buffum
Published date01 April 1973
Date01 April 1973
Subject MatterArticles
Prison Killings and Death Penalty
Peter C. Buffum*
In the wake of the Furman decision over half the states have
passed new death penalty legislation. A feature of many of these
new acts is the pruvision for a mandatory death penalty upon con-
viction for certain specified crimes, such as contract killings. The
killing of a prison ufficial or a murder committed by a prisoner
serving a life sentence are two provisions which are often included
in these acts as the result of inflamed public opinion and the organ-
ized efforts of correctional officers and other enforcement officials.
The need for these legislative provisions is articulated in
several related arguments. In the first instance it is reported that
prison work is a dangerous and deadly occupation. Unarmed and
surrounded daily by persons of unstable or aggressive character,
the correctional officer needs the additional protection afforded by
the deterrent power of the death penalty. The rise in prison killings
since the time when capital punishment was abolished is given as
supporting evidence. The second and somewhat less common ration-
ale for this kind of legislation is that it provides a fitting punishment
for one who not only takes a human life, but also attacks the very
personification of society’s system of law and order.
The other common legislative provision deals with murders
committed by prisoners already sentenced to life. Here the focus
is no longer on potential victims but on likely offenders. While it
is conceded that not all prisoners arc dangerous, what is to prevent
the persons with no causc for hope from lashing out and killing?
What about the convicted slayer sentenced to one or more life scn-
tences ? What is to prevent him from turning on his fellow inmates
or guards? This kind of argument implies that prison killings are
not altogether uncommon, and further, that it is the convicted
slayer against whom some spccial deterrent must be lodged.
It is clear that an empirical study of prison killings would
help clarify the viability of the arguments. It is also apparent that
the importance of any study of prison homicides goes well beyond
thc narrow issuc of appropriate pcnaltics. The prison homicide is
perhaps the single most dramatic and terrifying evcnt to transpire
* Staff Sociologist, Pennsylvania Prison Society.

behind prison walls. The importance of such events goes well be-
yond the matter oi their frequency, for their impact is often of
such magnitude as to alter prisoner-staff relationships, treatment-
custody relationships, existing power configurations, prison climate,
and daily routine.
Some have argued that the study of prison homicides pro-
perly belongs in the broader study of assaultive behavior in prisons..
Etiologically, this may be correct. The difference between the com-
monplace stabbing and the infrequent homicide is often a matter of
factors beyond the control of the actors, e.g., the availability of
emergency medical care. Nevertheless, the impact of the homicide
clearly sets it apart from the garden-variety assault as a unit of
analysis. The prison homicide quite plainly serves as a symbolic
event of immense importance that can shape the life of the prison
for a number of years.
In view of its bearing on death penalty legislation as well as
its impact on the institution, it is surprising to find that there has
been so little study of this phenomenon. This paper aims tu fill
some of this gap.
This brief report is actually the second in a scries of inves-
tigations preliminary to a longer study of prison homicides in the
United States from 1964-1973 being conducted by the Pennsylvania

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