Flogging Could Answer U.S. Prison Problems (Seriously): Books

The cover jacket of "In Defense of Flogging" by Peter Moskos. Source: Perseus via Bloomberg

“In Defense of Flogging” isn’t a joke, a satire or a thought experiment. Peter Moskos, a former Baltimore cop who’s now a professor at John Jay College of Criminal Justice, seriously wants to reintroduce corporal punishment in the United States.

Don’t laugh: He makes a convincing case. From the straightforward question he begins with -- “Given the choice between five years in prison and 10 brutal lashes, which would you choose?” -- he had my attention.

Moskos isn’t a sadist or a fetishist. In fact, he finds flogging distasteful. (He describes the physical effects in graphic detail: “skin is literally ripped from the body,” etc.)

But he’s far more outraged by the American penal system, which incarcerates the largest total number (2.3 million) and the largest per capita proportion (750 per 100,000) of prisoners of any country in the world. When the U.S. has criticized China on human-rights issues, Beijing has had the satisfaction of pointing to these figures in response.

I doubt that even those of Moskos’s readers most aghast at his ideas will try to argue that American prisons are anything other than dysfunctional. Moskos shows how the current system gradually replaced corporal punishment with the goal of rehabilitating wrongdoers.

Schools for Crime

But since it has long been evident that penitentiaries are little better than schools for crime, he compares the true believers in the “curative promises” of rehabilitationists with diehard communists.

However promising their ideas once seemed, “for modern reformers to maintain a utopian vision of incarceration that flies in the face of two centuries of real-world failure is inexcusable.”

Flogging as punishment would be less disruptive to society than incarceration, since “from behind bars a prisoner can’t be a father, hold a job, maintain a relationship or take care of elderly grandparents.” It would also cost taxpayers far, far less.

Which is why what Moskos calls the Prison-Industrial Complex -- the “political confluence of various interest groups that benefit from the business of incarceration” -- would furiously oppose it. Prisons have become such a massive industry in the U.S. that downsizing them could mean thousands of jobs lost. But is that really a reason to keep building them?

Beat Me

Moskos offers two important qualifiers to his proposal. First, he’s advocating corporal punishment “as an alternative to incarceration, not an addition to it.” (Unfortunately, it’s all too easy to imagine what might happen to this nuance in our punishment-happy culture.)

Second, he considers it essential that such punishment “only be done with the consent of the flogged. The status quo of incarceration is always an option.”

“In Defense of Flogging” is one of the very few public-policy books I’ve encountered that goes past wringing its hands over a societal problem to offer a viable solution, by which I mean one with a prayer of being put into place because it has appeal across the political spectrum.

Conservatives could embrace corporal punishment as a real and serious punishment for crime (in a way they couldn’t embrace, say, financial penalties or community service). Liberals could accept it as an option that gives wrongdoers a much better shot at a future than a prison sentence does.

Impulse Buy

And at just over 150 pages of clear, smart and highly readable prose, Moskos’s sharp little volume has a potential audience far beyond the experts who dutifully slog through most tomes like this. It’s the kind of item that could be stacked next to a bookstore’s cash register. Think about it for a Fathers’ Day gift.

So does my enthusiasm mean I’m ready to endorse flogging? Not quite. Penology is so far beyond my field of expertise that I want to see the enraged counterarguments first. I know one thing, though. Given the choice between 10 lashes and five years, I’d take the whip. Let the debate begin.

“In Defense of Flogging” is published by Basic (183 pages, $20). To buy this book in North America, click here.

(Craig Seligman is a critic for Muse, the arts and leisure section of Bloomberg News. The opinions expressed are his own.)

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