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Maffeo: We should have death row inmates fight like gladiators for freedom

You might be surprised to know that in the United States, it costs tens of millions of dollars to house convicted felons in prison—and on top of that, it costs tens of millions more to house prisoners on death row. As reported by Forbes, the state of California alone spent more than $1 billion between 1978 and 2011 on the incarceration of death-penalty prisoners. Lifetime incarceration of such people costs California alone $11.5 million per person. According to Forbes, “State spending on corrections, including prisons, has nearly quadrupled over the past two decades; it is now the fastest-growing budget item after Medicaid.” Think of other worthwhile things this fortune in taxpayer money could fund: education, roads, mental health services, public safety programs, etcetera.

I have a solution. I wish I could claim originality for it, but many others have thought of it first. In fact, a good number of science-fiction and alternate-realty books and movies have put it forward—such as The Condemned, Running Man, Gamer, Tenth Victim, and Death Race. Even Suicide Squad counts, flirting with the idea of using talents of criminals for another purpose. And, of course, we can also look at history for the grandest, real-life example on a very large scale: gladiator combat in the ancient Roman arenas. What am I talking about? Fighting to the death between condemned prisoners— for the entertainment of the public.


Think about it. The largest building in the ancient world (next to the Egyptian pyramids) was the Colosseum, opened in Rome in A.D. 80 and was in operation until around A.D. 520. There were many arenas in the Empire, but this was the largest; it could seat at least 50,000 people, and had events on many days throughout the year. Tickets to the Colosseum were free to Roman citizens, though you had to sit in the sections marked for your class. In the mornings they had animal fights, and at noon they had public executions, generally throwing the prisoners to wild beasts. But, in the afternoons, they had the ever-popular gladiator fights.

Life in Rome could be cruel; certainly. In general, life in the ancient world was very hard. Malnutrition, wild animals, war, crime, and disease were everywhere. As Keith Hopkins wrote in his book Death and Renewal: Sociological Studies in Roman History, “the popularity of gladiatorial shows were part of this culture of war, discipline, and death. Rome was a militaristic society. For centuries it had been devoted to war and mass participation of citizens in battle… public executions were a gruesome reminder to non-combatants, fellow citizens, or subjects, that vengeance would be exacted if they betrayed their country, rebelled, or were convicted of serious crimes.”

According to Encyclopedia Romana, the public execution of those who committed various transgressions, including being convicted of heinous crimes, vividly demonstrated the consequences of those actions. Per the encyclopedia, “In a society that was deeply stratified, the usurpation of ‘undeserved rights’ could be rectified only by public degradation and death.” Having rejected civilized society, the criminal no longer could claim his or her protection. “In publicly witnessing such punishment, citizens were reassured that the proper social order had been restored.” The gladiatorial games in the arena reaffirmed and reestablished the moral and political order of things, that civilization triumphed over the barbarian, over the enemy, and over the outlaw.

Today, the blood lust of the Roman spectators, the brutality of the combat, and the callous deaths of men and animals disturb our sensibilities.

Or do they?

Some people have referred to the United States as “the New Rome,” for a number of reasons. One of those reasons might be that, in modern times, our society seems to like violence just fine. Witness the popularity of stadium or televised events such as boxing (for many years, my great-grandfather would never miss watching “Friday Night at the Fights” on black-and-white TV), roller-derby, ice hockey (you know, fighting where a game occasionally breaks out), rugby, mixed-martial arts, World Wrestling Federation events and, of course, football. American football. “Stuff the quarterback” football.

So, back to my solution. Let’s have convicted prisoners on death row fight each other, publicly, to the death. Heck, in the spirit of capitalism and liberty, let’s have brave members of the public compete if they think they could make a career out of it. This would serve many good purposes: it would give well-deserved justice to evildoers, it would eliminate such criminals from incarceration, saving millions of dollars, and it would provide huge entertainment to the masses. It might also generate revenue with ticket sales. After all, why shouldn’t we be more advanced than the Romans and not give such entertainment away for free?

All prisoners would have to be volunteers, of course, if we wish to be more civilized than the Romans and honor the 8th Amendment, which protects against cruel and unusual punishment. The motivation to sign up would be earning amenities and privileges for fighting well, with the exception of their freedom.

Think of it. What if we could match up Charles Manson and Son-of-Sam? Jeffrey Dahmer and John Gacy? What about the Aurora theater shooter and the surviving Boston Marathon bomber? The arenas would be full. The television audience would be ginormous. The Pay-Per-View revenue would be staggering.


What are we waiting for?

Collegian Opinion Columnist Micah Maffeo can be reached at or on Twitter @micahmaffeo.

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    Michael OReillyDec 13, 2022 at 11:57 pm

    I’ve been doing extensive research into this exact idea. I’ve got tons of terms and conditions but I see this as incredibly valuable for revenue from ticket sales but also saving millions of tax dollars locking up inmates. I would love to get a hold of you sometime and talk further about this. I think we’re just a step away logistically from this becoming possible the USAs biggest relief for over populated prison and death row inmates.

    Please if your interested in bouncing ideas off one another reach out to me at cell at 614 927 8405