Courtesy Basic Books
An argument for a return to corporal punishment
Courtesy Basic Books

The United States has the largest prison population in the world — more than the number reported for China, despite the fact that China has a billion more people. And the United States has more people behind bars than in the armed services, notes Peter Moskos ’94 in In Defense of Flogging (Basic Books).

“Prisons are a blight on our society,” says Moskos, an assistant professor of law, police science, and criminal justice at John Jay College who spent a year serving as a police officer in Baltimore and wrote a book about the experience. In his sardonic but serious new book, Moskos evaluates America’s penal system. When he was a cop, it became clear to Moskos that the entire system was flawed. He believes that America ought to consider an alternative: flogging, carried out with the prisoner’s consent. 

“Prisons have failed at pretty much everything they were designed to do except prevent escapes. They certainly don’t ‘cure’ the criminal in the way it was intended,” says Moskos, who details the failings in his book. Between the fear, violence, isolation, and sexual assault that prisoners experience, prison destroys — not rehabilitates — a person, he insists. Nor does it prevent further crime, he argues: For an inmate released without job prospects and severed family ties, there is almost no alternative but to return to a life of crime. He notes in his book that out of the 700,000 prisoners released annually, two-thirds are rearrested within three years.

Courtesy Basic Books

Corporal punishment, Moskos writes, avoids those problems. Flogging had been a part of the American penal system since the country’s inception and was still practiced on a state-by-state basis until 1972, when Delaware became the last state to outlaw it, he notes. Moskos says that when administered in a controlled environment, as in Singapore, flogging punishes the criminal with much less cost than incarceration. Moskos suggests that, for nonviolent crimes, flogging should be offered to offenders as an alternative to prison: two lashes per year of prison sentence. He argues that since the individuals would not be separated from jobs and their families, they would continue to have opportunities to be productive members of society, deterring future crime in a way that prison does not. 

Moskos’ goal with this new alternative option of punishment, as he told Harper’s in July, is to be more humane and reduce the heavy cost of prisons on American society. He sees flogging as the “lesser of two evils.” “Because flogging would happen only with the consent of the flogged, it would be hard to argue that it’s too cruel to consider,” he told the magazine. “If the choice were so bad, nobody would choose it.” And yet Moskos believes most people, given the choice, would choose the lash. “Harsh as it may be, flogging is more humane, less destructive, and much cheaper than the form of punishment we have now,” he says.

Moskos also rebuts the most common argument for incarceration — that taking criminals off the street will decrease the number of crimes committed. He maintains that there is little, if any, correlation between the number of prisoners and a city’s crime rate and that “prisons cause criminality,” because inmates are likely to learn new criminal behavior and join gangs while in prison. 

“Families, jobs, and police can all prevent crime. Prisons do not,” Moskos says. “We know that prisons are not the answer.” While some people might see flogging as too cruel to consider — and Moskos realizes that it probably won’t be reinstated anytime soon — he hopes that this radical idea will open a serious dialogue about alternatives to prison and set real change in motion. “Merely presenting the choice helps us question the purpose of prison,” he says, “and suggests how destructive incarceration is for the individual and society.”

Jessica Case ’06 is an editor at Pegasus Books in New York City.

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