Is flogging less cruel than jail time?

An ex-beat cop says the U.S. penal system is immoral and ineffective
Popperfoto,The Book, Volume 1,Page: 100, Picture: 8, Corporal Punishment, Picture shows a flogging taking place with the prisoner strapped up and a doctor in attendance to monitor events, 1958 (Photo by Popperfoto/Getty Images)
 Is flogging less cruel than jail time?
Popperfoto/Getty Images

Peter Moskos is an American criminologist whose experiences and research, first as a Baltimore beat cop and later as a professor at John Jay College of Criminal Justice in New York, have shown him just how immorally counterproductive, ruinously expensive and profoundly stupid his country’s prison system is. He’s also discovered that he can tell his fellow Americans this, and even convince many, but it doesn’t really matter: they just want criminals punished. Very well, Moskos decided, consider this, meaning the startling suggestion in the title of his elegant polemic, In Defense of Flogging. Like 18th-century satirist Jonathan Swift, whose Modest Proposal offered a tidy if savage solution to chronic hunger in Ireland—have the rich eat the starving children of the poor—Moskos aimed “to shake up people,” as he says in an interview, “alter their thinking.” With one key difference: Swift never really thought eating babies was a good idea, but by the end of In Defense of Flogging, Moskos had convinced himself of the benefits of flogging.

His argument has two pillars. The first is how awful the current punishment regime is, mostly as a result of the abject failure of the war on drugs: “These 2.3 million prisoners we have, more than one per cent of the adult population, more prisoners than soldiers, more prisoners than China, seven times the incarceration rate of Canada? Somehow we’ve convinced ourselves this is normal and rational.” (References to Canada pepper his book as well, with Moskos pointing northward to what he considers a land of rational incarceration policies. He is discouraged, to put it mildly, to hear that Canada now seems set to take some steps, at least, down the American penal road, embarking on an expensive prison expansion program and increasing mandatory minimum sentences.)

Moskos, no bleeding heart, has no quarrel at all with his countrymen’s demand that criminals be punished—he merely despises the way the U.S. currently goes about it.

While there are offenders he would imprison for years, partly as punishment and mostly for public safety, far too many Americans are in jail for no good reason. “Lock up an active pedophile and there are fewer raped children, yes, but locking up a drug dealer just creates a job opening.” Incarcerate thousands of the latter at a cost of billions, and thousands more will take their places.

If prison is ineffective as a deterrent, it certainly does punish, but not in a way good for either prisoners or society: many cons, especially those in prolonged solitary, emerge psychologically damaged; even more come out well-schooled by fellow inmates in advanced criminal techniques; and all of them are released to minimal job prospects. (Some 47 million Americans have criminal records.) Now that virtually no one speaks any longer of prison’s rehabilitative function—the original impulse behind the prison system when it took root 200 years ago—Moskos scathingly notes prison defenders are increasingly driven to economic, as opposed to moral, arguments, including the way “the prison-industrial complex” is used to provide a crude form of regional equalization: “We spend billions to pay poor rural whites to guard poor urban blacks.”

That brings Moskos to his second pillar. Knowing what you know about prison, dear reader, he writes, which would be your choice (should you ever be convicted of a felony) between the options he proposes for non-violent criminals: either serve your time or accept two flesh-lacerating, Singapore-style blows from a rattan cane per year of your sentence? And if you would take the lashes for yourself—and Moskos knows he would—how can you deny it to others? Two reasons, he reckons. First, it’s not harsh enough, as deterrent or as punishment, to which he replies that nothing short of decriminalization will deter the drug trade, but that he’s open to debating the number of strokes.

But the main objection, of course, is moral. Prison, for all its manifest evils, is familiar, accepted, seemingly inevitable—that’s why we joke about prison rape—while flogging is…barbaric. “I have a friend who hates this book. She does death penalty mitigation cases, she fights the good fight, you know,” says Moskos. “But she can’t get past the idea that flogging is wrong. And I find it so weird that people who claim to speak for prisoners want to keep them in cages, and then fight for better prison libraries or whatever. It’s like they’re missing the big picture.”