Criminals' lives matter too

DISTURBING INCIDENT: Police officers standing guard outside Kaohsiung Prison, where six armed inmates took the warden and officials hostage in an attempted jailbreak, on Feb 11. The six inmates committed suicide, but there are rumours that not all of them chose that end.


    Mar 02, 2015

    Criminals' lives matter too

    THE attempted jailbreak in Kaohsiung Prison that led to the death of six inmates may have occurred nearly a month ago, but the story has not yet ended.

    The prison warden and his deputy - publicly lauded in the days immediately following the crisis, when they were deemed heroic for their efforts to bring calm and common sense to a highly combustible situation - have now been cited by the Ministry of Justice (MOJ) for "gross negligence" and punished with demerits. The MOJ handed down similar penalties for some 20 other officials at the prison.

    But there is so much more in all this that begs for analysis.

    Although I am not a media professional, I am smart enough to know that ethically sensitive practitioners do not resort to drone cameras to take juicy, profitable photos when peoples' lives are in danger. And who will soon forget the pandering to hostage-takers in the form of the live interview with the now-disgraced warden, not to mention the "room service" on booze for prisoners already in an agitated, edgy state of mind?

    Beyond this disturbing picture, or perhaps buried deeply under it, there lie more shadowy realities. One of them is the question of suicide, which inevitably links to the value of human life, which links to a whole lot more.

    Considering how credibility is such a sensitive issue in Taiwan nowadays, it is not surprising that scepticism immediately arose over the suicides that capped the scenario.

    Is it a quirk of cultural differences that at least two foreigners I know doubt the official narrative of the suicides?

    "It just seems so hard to believe that all six of those guys wanted at the same moment to do that to themselves," one friend commented.

    Yet, having lived in Taiwan for over 30 years and witnessed an unhealthy and unnatural fascination with suicide, I can believe that, sadly, an end to life is what some of those men chose for themselves. But there are rumours that not all six chose that end, that their associates browbeat them into it.

    When I showed dismay and even anger over the suicide "end" of the story, another friend of mine took a most peculiar stand. With a shrug and a chuckle, he looked at me almost in amusement, as if to say: "Who cares? Good riddance to good rubbish!" This left me to ponder how the public views the loss of life.

    The value of even a criminal's life should weigh on the mind and heart of every thinking person in Taiwan. Questions about the value of a life cannot be left to a popular vote in certain narrow, confined venues.

    Caucasians in the American south in the 18th and early 19th century presumably found the lives of black people of little or no inherent value. The same was true for at least 200 years in American culture and politics when it came to the indigenous peoples there, whom we once called "the American Indians". Many Americans of European heritage, if asked at the time, probably would have said: "Indian lives? Who cares?"

    At the Oscars last week, Graham Moore, who was honoured for his work in The Imitation Game, said hope was an option for everyone. He revealed a secret. At 16, he said, he felt so unhappy that he almost ended his life.

    In the same ceremony, Dana Perry, producer for the best short documentary, dedicated her Oscar to her son. He committed suicide 10 years ago. "We should talk about suicide out loud," she said. I say so, too.

    I say that even the lives of people who do horrible things in society are lives that are precious and valuable. By all reports, Taiwan's prisons are not as flat-out terrible as those in the United States. Taiwan incarcerates a minuscule number, compared to the US.

    Still, according to Professor Shih I-huei, Taiwan has ordered 64,000 of its citizens into its prisons. Do we care that those prisons were meant to hold 53,000? We should.

    Perhaps I am pessimistic about the question, but I feel life is too cheap in Taiwan for too many people. We do not value the gift of human life nearly enough.

    The lower value we hold for some lives is why we denigrate the importance of girls and women in our society, and prefer baby boys to baby girls. We know that attitude is wrong, and that is why we are ashamed to talk about it.

    The cheap value we put on female life is also why we do not even want to think of the truth that Taiwan mothers and fathers are more inclined to deny the life of a female foetus than that of a male.

    So, the question of those suicides in Kaohsiung should bother us, and for many reasons. We may not know what to do with people who do evil, but prisoners are still human beings. Their suicides are important, partly because their lives are important.

    Like it or not, the story of Kaohsiung Prison is here to stay.


    The writer is a priest and associate professor in the English department of Fu Jen Catholic University.