“We Have Invented a New Form of Death”

An Interview With Colin Dayan

This is the first of three pieces in which I’ll be interviewing thinkers working on issues of justice, solitary confinement, and incarceration. Over the next several months, I’ll talk with Lisa Guenther about what solitary confinement does to bodies and minds, and to Linda Ross Meyer about what might happen if we start talking about justice in terms of mercy rather than retribution.

In this issue, I speak with Colin Dayan about how, in courts and prisons in the U.S., focus has shifted from prisoners’ rights to questions of how best to keep a prison system running. In that move, we have lost sight of the human individual. Dayan is Robert Penn Warren Professor of the Humanities at Vanderbilt University, recipient of Guggenheim and Danforth fellowships, an elected member of the Academy of Arts and Sciences, and the author of The Law Is a White Dog: How Legal Rituals Make and Unmake Persons.

—Jill Stauffer

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THE BELIEVER: Wait. You’re saying that the subjective component that matters here—in cases about prison cruelty—is not the prisoner’s experience but the state of mind of the alleged abuser? What matters is whether a guard or warden intended harm rather than whether the prisoner is harmed?

COLIN DAYAN: Exactly. No matter how much actual suffering is experienced by a prisoner, if you can’t establish that harm was intended, then the effect of that harm on the prisoner is not a matter for judicial review.

BLVR: And that’s a Supreme Court decision.

CD: Yes.

We hope you enjoy this excerpt.

To read the full piece, please purchase a copy of the magazine from The McSweeney’s Store.

Jill Stauffer is assistant professor of philosophy and director of the concentration in peace, justice, and human rights at Haverford College. She is currently working on a book called Ethical Loneliness, about the difficulties and possibilities of political reconciliation.


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