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Whip It Good: Should We Flog Convicts?

Some of America's prisons have been declared "cruel and unusual." Maybe corporal punishment is the more humane approach.

Let’s say you broke the law and got arrested. Which would you prefer: A year in jail or two quick but horribly painful lashes to your rear? Peter Moskos, criminologist and author of In Defense of Flogging, bets you'd chose the latter. (Who has time for jail these days?) With his provocatively titled new release, he hopes to reinsert flogging and corporal punishment into the debate about the future of the prison system, one of America’s most spectacularly failing institutions. Moskos, a former Baltimore cop, argues that a good whuppin' could be a more efficient and more humane alternative to mass incarceration.

While the premise might seem outrageous, the book is well-timed. In the face of tremendous budget deficits, statehouses around the country are looking more closely at their corrections expenditures, which are catching up to Medicaid as one of the biggest burdens on taxpayers. On average, it costs the government more than $25,000 for each year of a convict's sentence. As Moskos points out, "an additional lash is free.”

Indeed the stats on the U.S. prison system—the biggest the world has ever seen— are shocking. More than 2.3 million Americans are imprisoned, making the prison system the nation’s fourth biggest city when taken as a whole. If you included Americans on parole or probation, the figure comes out to 7.3 million citizens (by 2008 numbers), at a cost of $43 billion. Just last month, the Supreme Court ordered California to downsize its prison population by more than 30,000 over the next few years to just 110,000 thousand (or 137.5 percent of capacity), claiming that overcrowding and a lack of access to medical care amount to “cruel and unusual” punishment.

Cruel and unusual punishment sounds a bit like beating someone with a whip, doesn’t it? But in Moskos’ opinion, such a punishment could be a better alternative to the status quo, where prisoners face a high chance of physical or sexual assault and recidivism. Moskos argues that convicts should be offered the option to receive a caning at the rate of two lashes for every year of their sentence, in lieu of incarceration. He envisions a highly efficient system in which the convict, upon choosing the caning at his sentencing, would be ushered into a semi-private chamber, examined by a doctor, and then administered the punishment by a trained professional. Afterward he'd be released.

While advocating for the punishment, Moskos doesn’t spare us the brutal details. In the aftermath of caning, he writes:

You’ll likely be in shock and perhaps even unconscious as the doctor treats the deep, bloody furrows left in your behind. Then, once they’ve patched you up, you’d be allowed to leave the courthouse a free man…You’d never have to find out what the inside of a prison is like.


This is an important piece of Moskos' argument. The idea that caning hurts—a lot—but is quick and simple means it has the potential to bridge the divide between liberal prison reformists and hard-on-crime conservatives. Ultimately Moskos is on the same page as advocates for prison reform who point out the inefficiencies, racism, and lack of justice inherent in our current system.

However, he argues that reformists miss the boat with their emphasis on costly, complicated, and ineffective rehabilitation rather than pure and simple retribution. As a retired cop interviewed by Moskos said, “When I was growing up in Baltimore, police would whup your ass… At least after a beating you had essentially a clean slate. And a good lesson. What happens today is a joke.”

In Defense of Flogging
By Peter Moskos
Hardcover. 192 pages
Basic Books. $20.00

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