The United States now has more prisoners than any other country in the world. Ever. In sheer numbers and as a percentage of the population. Our rate of incarceration is roughly seven times that of Canada or any Western European country. Despite our “land of the free” rhetoric, we deem it necessary (at great expense) to incarcerate more of our people, 2.3 million, than the world’s most draconian regimes. We have more prisoners than China, and they have a billion more people than we do. We have more prisoners than soldiers; prison guards outnumber Marines.
It wasn’t always this way. In 1970, just 338,000 Americans were behind bars. From 1970 to 1991 crime rose while we locked up a million more people. Since then we’ve locked up another million and crime has gone down. Is there something so special about that second million? Were they the only ones who were “real criminals”? Did we simply get it wrong with the first 1.3 million people we put behind bars?
Because alternatives to incarceration usually lack punishment, changes to our current defective system of justice are hard to imagine. I am not proposing to completely end confinement or shut down every prison. Some inmates are, of course, too violent and hazardous to simply flog and release. They are being kept in prison not only to punish, but because we’re afraid of them. But for the millions of other prisoners–particularly those caught up in the war on drugs (which I would end tomorrow if I could)–the lash is better than a prison cell. Why not at least offer the choice?
That prisons have failed in such a spectacular manner should matter more than it does. But it should come as no surprise, since prisons were designed not to punish, but to “cure.” Just as hospitals were for the physically sick, penitentiaries were created–mostly by Quakers in the late eighteenth century–to heal the criminally ill. Like so many utopian fairy tales, the movement to cure criminals failed.
Make no mistake: flogging is punishment, and punishment must by definition hurt. Even under controlled conditions, with doctors present and the convict choosing a lashing over a prison sentence, the details of flogging are enough to make most people queasy. Skin is literally ripped from the body.
Is flogging too cruel to contemplate? But then why, given the choice between five years in prison and brutal lashes, would most people choose flogging? Wouldn’t you? How can offering criminals the choice of the lash in lieu of being locked-up be so bad? If flogging were really worse than prison, nobody would choose it. Of course most people would choose the lash over incarceration. And that’s my point. Faced with the choice between hard time and the lash, the lash is better. What does that say about prison?
[You can read more about this in the Chronicle of Higher Education and also in the May-June edition of the Washington Monthly (available
in better newsstands, but not yet online here). Even better, BUY MY BOOK, In Defense of Flogging. Agree with me or not, you should find the argument thought provoking and the book a good, short read. --Peter Moskos]