Proceedings are ongoing in the punishment phase of the manslaughter case. Tor Constantino looks at the realities facing a double amputee in prison.
The latest chapter of the fatally-tragic story involving Olympic, double-amputee athlete Oscar Pistorius is currently underway in a South African courtroom.
While Pistorius was acquitted of murder charges last month in the February shooting death of his 29-year old girlfriend Reeva Steenkamp, he was found guilty of manslaughter as well as a separate charge regarding reckless use of a firearm.
The court reconvened this week to decide what his sentence should be.
Pistorius gained worldwide fame in 2012 when he became the first paralytic athlete to compete in the Olympic Games, which were held that year in London.
According to media reports, the presiding judge has several punishment options to consider, ranging from a monetary fine and suspended sentence; possible house arrest or he could be sentenced to prison for up to 15 years.
During the proceedings this week, testimony from separate social workers who took the stand on behalf of the defense to persuade the courts for leniency talked about the harsh reality of prison life Pistorius might face.
One of the social workers asserted that the predominance of gang violence and overcrowded conditions of a typical South African prison would overwhelm Pistorius and would leave the athlete “…a broken person.”
One can only imagine how those words fell on the ears of Ms. Steenkamp’s surviving family members in the courtroom who have been broken in their own right by the tragic events. Her family has also provided testimony this week petitioning the courts to put Pistorius behind bars.
The judge was also presented with media reports where at least one high-level, prison gang leader announced that he intends to issue a contract killing on Pistorius if he is incarcerated, which would convert any prison sentence to a de facto death penalty.
While not a U.S. case, these proceedings allow for a discussion of how disabled prisoners are treated here in America.
Even though the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) has been the law of the land for more than 20 years, it typically does not extend behind prison walls to assist inmates with disabilities.
While many in society might see that as a good thing, the reality of incarceration for a disabled convict might constitute cruel and unusual punishment—which would be a violation of constitutionally protected civil rights.
In fact, the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) was granted class-action status in 2012 for a suit filed on behalf of disabled inmates within the Los Angeles County Corrections system to force the corrections facilities in that jurisdiction to comply with ADA regulations for access and mobility, since it’s reported that many disabled inmates had to crawl on the floor of those jails to get from one place to another due to a shortage of wheelchairs or other mobility devices.
If a progressive state such as California has those types of issues in one of its most populated counties, it’s fairly safe to assume this is an issue elsewhere as well.
It’s not known whether Pistorius would be allowed to have prostethic legs if he was incarcerated in a typical South African prison to help him get around.
The risk of allowing that type of mobility device within a prison setting is obvious since it could be taken from him by other convicts and converted into a weapon to hurt guards, other inmates or Pistorius himself.
The issue of disabled prisoners is real; however, societal justice must be served when crimes are committed and individuals are convicted—regardless of their physical ability or mobility.
While a suspect might be deemed incapable of going to trial due to mental incapacity or mental illness, those limitations don’t exist for individuals with physical disabilities who commit crimes.
The equality of physical access afforded under ADA laws is not a shield against prosecution or sentencing for disabled individuals who violate criminal laws. Still, the idea of disabled convicts crawling along a prison floor seems inhumane and may require a higher level of protection or specialized ADA-compliant facilities for such inmates.
Conversely, it can equally be argued that they had a significant role in their incarceration consequences and don’t deserve special treatment despite their special needs. The one thing that should not occur is granting a lighter sentence solely based on the extent of a physical disability of a convicted killer—such a decision would fly in the face of blind Justice.
It would also shatter the already fractured hearts of Ms. Steenkamp’s parents and family who continue to mourn her loss. Even though they have decided against filing a civil case against Pistorius, they are actively petitioning the court during these sentencing hearings to hand down a stiff jail term.
It remains to be seen the degree of punishment the judge will deem appropriate to fit the unique set of circumstances surrounding this crime. The actual sentence is expected to be handed down next Tuesday.
Question: Should Pistorius be sentenced to jail time?