Derek Chauvin was not sentenced to death. The former Minneapolis police officer and convicted murderer of George Floyd was sentenced to 22 and a half years in prison, and he should have every right to serve that time in safety. So his life-threatening stabbing by another inmate last week, just two years into his term, is an appalling failure of American systems and institutions of justice.
The assault took place at a medium-security federal prison in Arizona, where Chauvin was transferred in August 2022 after being held in a Minnesota state prison. Although his injury was severe, he is expected to recover.
It may be tempting to rummage for some kind of satisfaction in Chauvin's brush with death. Perhaps it was comeuppance. Karma. Retribution. Isn't that what prison is all about?
This is dangerous and destructive thinking. In a civilized society, prison is neither torture nor a vehicle for vengeance. It is a response to egregious crimes and should consist solely of the loss of one of society's two most highly treasured assets — individual liberty — in service of the other — justice.
Chauvin forfeited his right to liberty when he snuffed out Floyd 's life during the final hours of Memorial Day weekend 2020. As one of several officers responding to a call about Floyd allegedly passing a fake $20 bill, Chauvin kneeled on Floyd's neck for nine and a half minutes, leaving him dead. The murder under color of authority inflicted untold damage on the part of the justice system in which Chauvin played a part — the apprehension of suspected offenders.
Safe incarceration for a killer like Chauvin is a measured response to that damage.
Unsafe incarceration, in which people convicted of crimes live in fear of attack, abuse, rape, subpar medical care or the mental torture of solitary confinement, contaminates the entire justice system. It mocks a society's professed values of humanity, dignity and order, and reveals a different set of operating principles: Contempt. Fear. Cruelty. Chaos.
The United States is history's wealthiest and most established democracy and ought to be able to competently run prisons that protect people and perhaps even introduce them to high standards of conduct.
But our failure is profound. The attack on Chauvin is hardly rare. U.S. prisons and jails have appalling records of violence and abuse. USA Gymnastics doctor Larry Nassar, imprisoned for sexually assaulting hundreds of patients, was stabbed multiple times in a Florida prison earlier this year. Unabomber Ted Kaczynski died by apparent suicide at a federal medical prison in North Carolina.
The nation is stained by hundreds, perhaps thousands, of other cases of jail and prison negligence and abuse in which the victims are barely considered newsworthy. More than 40 people have died this year in Los Angeles County jails, some by suicide, some due to poor care and substandard living conditions and some by homicide.
Deaths due to poor care at Atlanta's notorious Fulton County Jail were reported earlier this year only because it's where Donald Trump and his co-defendants were booked on charges they tried to overturn the results of the 2020 election. Deaths due to lack of air conditioning are reported across much of the nation as temperatures rise but standards of care plummet.
Should sex offenders and serial child molesters like Nassar, who violated their positions of trust, be protected from attack? Yes, most definitely. Should killers like Kaczynski be protected from dying by suicide? Of course. Should a murderous police officer like Chauvin feel safer in prison than Floyd was on the street? Absolutely. So should the rapist, the school shooter, the robber, the shoplifter, the Jan. 6 insurrectionist and the accused person locked up for failure to pay bail.
Loss of liberty is the harsh penalty we impose in the name of justice. Prisons in which people are brutalized, killed and abused have no place in a civilized society.