The Timothy McVeigh execution circus was much more interesting for what it revealed about America than it was for actually putting the killer in the ground.

The public was solidly for executing McVeigh; some polls had 80 percent of us in favor. But the TV news ratings barely budged. Apparently Americans wanted the deed done but did not want to hear it reported or discussed.

That’s because I believe that inside many Americans lies certain uneasiness about capital punishment. If taking a life is wrong, then it’s wrong even when the state sanctions it. Of course justice dictates a fitting punishment for murderers and the Old Testament does discuss an eye for an eye. But if there were a better way to punish people that commit crimes against humanity – Americans might rally behind it.

So here’s the better way. Killers, rapists, drug kingpins and terrorists should all be subjected to life in prison without parole in a federal work camp. This special prison system would be run military style and be located on federal land in Alaska. It would be in effect a gulag.

Here the worst criminals in the country would be banished and forced to labor eight hours a day, six days a week in the harsh climate. They would be denied television, computers, exercise equipment (as if they’d need it) and most other “comfort” items. Their mail would be screened, and they would only be allowed a few visitors per year.

If the criminal did not cooperate with the work detail, his food rations would be cut, and he would be placed in solitary confinement.

Now let me ask you, is that not a worse punishment than Timothy McVeigh received? His lawyer actually told the press that McVeigh preferred the lethal injection to spending his life in prison. And that would have been in a comfortable prison – a place where narcotics and alcohol can be purchased illegally, a place where cigarettes can be smoked and where recreation is provided.

Most Americans realize that our prison system is far too lenient and permissive. Remember Richard Speck? He brutally killed eight nurses in Chicago in the mid-1960s. Speck was sentenced to life in an Illinois penitentiary. In the mid-’90s a two-hour videotape of Speck found its way to the media. On that tape an inebriated Richard Speck, dressed as a woman, bragged about all the drugs he was taking and all the sex he was having. Said Speck on the tape: “If they only knew how much fun I was having, they would turn me loose.”

That videotape is one of the worst things this columnist has ever seen.

Richard Speck died from a heart attack in 1991, before that tape came to light. But if a monster like that can have “fun” in prison, it is no wonder that most Americans support the death penalty.

Timothy McVeigh killed 168 people but did not suffer a painful death. His lethal drip contained a sedative along with the poison. McVeigh would have suffered far more in a work camp.

And then there’s the deterrent factor. Many killers (including McVeigh, I believe) don’t really care whether they live or die. They don’t value their own lives because many of them have nothing to live for. But faced with a life of constant pain and deprivation, would not some of these degenerates think twice before pulling a trigger or brutalizing a woman? Think about it. A painless four-minute drip versus a painful multi-decade banishment. Which would you pick?

I’d go four and out myself. And one more thing. The work camp sentence is revocable. If a terrible mistake is made and the convict turns out to be innocent, the convict is still alive. The mistake can be undone. No system is perfect – but why kill people when you can sentence them in a more punitive way?

The American criminal justice system needs reform desperately. Prisons need to be places where non-violent offenders are offered a chance to rehabilitate, but violent criminals are made to pay a terrible price. Did Richard Speck pay a terrible price? Did Timothy McVeigh? Those are questions our country needs to think about.

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