How much should Dzhokhar Tsarnaev suffer?


Among the many things Dzhokhar Tsarnaev’s defense attorneys have thrown at the wall in their efforts to keep their unsympathetic client alive is the notion that we shouldn’t worry: In jail, he’s really going to suffer.

Last week, attorneys outlined the dehumanizing conditions at ADX, the supermax prison in Colorado where Tsarnaev would likely wind up if he’s spared the death penalty in the Boston Marathon bombings. A witness described the possibility of 23 hours of solitary confinement, two 15-minute phone conversations permitted per month with immediate family only — a life essentially cut off from meaningful human contact.

Prosecutors fought back, saying Tsarnaev might still wind up in conditions that were moderately more humane. Their presumption: Jurors would want him to live the most miserable, meaningless existence possible, and would only spare his life if he were guaranteed a fate worse than death. “Let him rot in prison” is a common refrain, but what, precisely, do we mean by “rot”? What do we want a murderer’s life to be?


There has long been a debate about prison’s chief purpose, whether it ought to be punishment or rehabilitation. We want to force people to reckon for their deeds, and deter others from committing the same crimes. But prisons, with their libraries, GED programs, and enrichment opportunities, can also prepare inmates for a more productive future.

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For someone with no chance of parole, the calculation changes. What’s the expectation for a convict like Tsarnaev? Abject misery, for as long as it can last? Reflection on his crimes and eventual remorse? A chance, within the prison walls, to make some kind of meaning?

If we’re interested in the first outcome only, then supermax would be a fitting choice. But solitary confinement takes a psychic toll. Psychologists have outlined the physical and mental consequences of social isolation, the paranoia and hallucinations that often result, the loss of connection to reality.

“Long-term isolated prisoners are literally at risk of losing their grasp on who they are, of how and whether they are connected to a larger social world,” writes Craig Haney, a psychology professor at the University of California-Santa Cruz and a leading expert on the psychological effects of solitary confinement.

If we’re looking for repentance, in other words, we won’t get it from someone who’s psychotic. And extended isolation cuts off the chance that Tsarnaev could make something constructive of his fate. Prisoners, even murderers, have turned into writers, scholars, friends.


It’s hard to imagine that kind of life for Tsarnaev — because of the havoc he wreaked, because our anger is fresh and justified, because he’s shown no sign of mourning for the loss of lives and limbs. It’s hard to say if his attitude will fade with his youth. And if his recalcitrance remains, we don’t want him to be a martyr.

But the state could presumably restrict his contact with the press without treating him like an animal. It could leave open the opportunity, however slim, that he would grow or repent. He’d still be confined to life within concrete walls and barbed wire fences, far from family and far from free. That prison might contain some glimmers of humanity wouldn’t make it easy, or make us soft.

Even if we don’t care about Tsarnaev himself — if we want him out of sight and out of mind — we should care about the future we’re creating. What do we want a young murderer to be 30, 40 years from now? If the answer is merely “suffering,” what does that say about us?

Joanna Weiss can be reached at weiss@globe.com. Follow her on Twitter @JoannaWeiss.