In Defense of Flogging

Tuesday, May 10th, 2011

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]

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87 Responses to “In Defense of Flogging”

  1. #1 |  Xaq Fixx | 

    I am beginning to think that Peter is a troll.

  2. #2 |  ktc2 | 

    Sure, bring it back as an option, and outlawry.

  3. #3 |  Bob Jr. | 

    Certainly flogging is less cruel and unusual than 5 years of being confined with extremely violent people who could beat and rape you at any time

  4. #4 |  SJE | 

    I think we really should be considering more seriously ALL forms of non-prison punishment, not just flogging. Many crimes and misdemeanors have ridiculously lenient punishments, and then jump immediately to serious jail time.

    For example, a man in Maryland who killed a cyclist was doing 60mph in a 35mph zone, blowing a 0.2 BAC. He was given 8+ years in jail. He lost his house, his liberty and his job. That is serious. What bothers me is that it was his third serious DUI, and added onto a drunk and disorderly assault charge. His previous punishments were ridiculous (one weekend in jail). If he was exposed to some more serious punishment earlier, such as revocation of his driving license for a few years, he might have turned himself around.

  5. #5 |  Jess | 

    You might not agree with everything Peter says, but no one in this country has an answer for the atrocity he describes in his second paragraph.

  6. #6 |  Stormy Dragon | 

  7. #7 |  JS | 

    I’d rather be flogged than put in a cage for any length of time. That said, maybe the incarceration rate problem is just that we have too damn many laws and not enough personal freedom.

  8. #8 |  Zargon | 

    I’m not necessarily against flogging, per-se.

    The problem is that our real problem is that they have made so many things crimes. The fact that our prison population is what it is is not a failure of prisons, it’s a failure of the legal system, egged on by the prison industry.

    If flogging became commonplace, you have to remember that the pressure to always increase the number of crimes and the severity of the punishment for each crime will continue. Certainly flogging is preferable to losing 5 years of your life, but if flogging is socially acceptable to inflict upon drug dealers today, will it be socially acceptable tomorrow to inflict it upon speeder and jaywalkers and people who consume too much alcohol for their own good?

    Will the severity of flogging multiply as politicians peddle their lies about how crime is always increasing and therefore current floggings are clearly not severe enough?

    Of course, none of that shows that flogging would be any worse than our current system (which, of course, isn’t saying much), but you can’t just evaluate something based on the intended, immediate effects.

  9. #9 |  Matt Finnigan | 

    “But then why, given the choice between five years in prison and brutal lashes, would most people choose flogging?”

    How about, because the people have never experience a true flogging? Assuming that they’re not into that kind of BDSM, most people haven’t experienced that kind of pain, and those that do, do so willingly and go back for more.

    Or maybe the “most people” being surveyed (where’s your citation, by the way?) are not actually in a position to be forced to choose between one or the other? Was this a phone survey? A psychological experiment? Was it performed on people who’ve never been in prison and consider themselves unlikely to be?

    If the survey was of current prisoners, I could argue that they’ve already been through part of their sentence and would trade it for a flogging (again, I’m assuming they haven’t experienced one.) Of course, that’s just a guess. I’d have to see your methodology to really argue it – and no, I’m not buying your book. Are you trying to make a serious point on this blog, or just hawk your wares?

  10. #10 |  John Jenkins | 

    So, I was going to satirize this, but I can’t. I really can’t. It’s beyond parody. Let’s observe.

    1. We have x people in prison.
    2. x is too high (this is an assumption, but let’s grant it).
    3. Therefore, we should flog some people instead of putting them in prison.

    Now, where I come from, this is what we call a non sequitur.

    I would argue that the underlying problem is overcriminalization, but if you want to argue that the problem is strictly the number of people in prison and not convicting that many people in the first place, you can’t at the same time sit there and talk about how you’d end the drug war. That’s horseshit. If flogging is your solution, and if you believe in retributive justice at all (which you almost have to for flogging to be your solution, unless you’re the most evil consequentialist ever), then you must believe that the person you’re flogging deserves to be flogged, and if you believe that, then you can’t be opposed to the drug war, since most of the people to be flogged (or at least a non-trivial percentage of them) would be convicted under its auspices. In short: you’re either lying or you’re full of shit, but either way, you can’t be serious.

  11. #11 |  Michael Chaney | 

    Oddly, I’ve come to Moskos’ opinion here on my own over the last few years. Prison is a far bigger punishment than it looks. Yes, you lose your freedom being locked up. But for the common middle class person they lose far more – they lose their house, cars, belongings, likely family, etc. After getting out, they’re an “ex-con” who will have trouble ever getting a decent job or being accepted back into society. In other words, the time spent locked up is but a small part of the punishment.

    Given the choice, I’m sure many people would prefer to get the flogging and go back to work in a week. It’s far less disruptive to life. It would also save us a ton of money as a society.

  12. #12 |  H4 | 

    Your premise is flawed. “From 1970 to 1991 crime rose while we locked up a million more people.” Why did crime rise? Is it because people all of a sudden became more violent or is it because the government deemed it fit to characterize more behavior as “crimes”? The meteoric rise in incarceration numbers closely tracks the emergence of the “War on Drugs”. It is no coincidence.

    I assume you are familiar with the work of Harvey Silvergate (Three Felonies a Day) and Judge Jim Gray (Why our Drug Laws Have Failed). If not, you should be. You might think twice about dishing out any kind punishment before adressing whether there is any crime to be had between consenting adults in the first place. Unfortunately for us, the sociopathic apex predators among us view the prison-industrial-complex as just another source of revenue. A very lucrative one at that. Catherine Austin Fitts has more on that topic.

  13. #13 |  Matt | 

    Out of curiosity, why the interest in flogging as a particular form of punishment, when there are so many ways you can torture someone without killing them (electric shocks, waterboarding, Justin Bieber…). Some quaint attachment to an archaic practice?

  14. #14 |  DarkEFang | 

    Our prisons are designed to “cure” criminals? Really? That’s such a bafflingly wrong statement that I can’t even process the rest of this post.

    Historically, US prisons have been designed for retribution. They were designed to break the body with hard labor, and break the mind with deplorable living conditions.

    There may have been a handful of prisons designed to reform inmates at one point in time, but they were never adequately funded. Over the past 30 years, funds for programs that might help reform prisoners – like drug treatment, education, job training and mental health programs – have been slashed.

    Hard labor may now be gone – except in Maricopa County, Arizona – but it has been replaced with violence and rape. Instead of releasing people who might be able to contribute to society, we release hardened criminals who are much more violent and than when they entered prison. And then we wonder why the recidivism rate is so high.

  15. #15 |  MassHole | 

    Why give the state the ability to beat the shit out of you as “punishment” to solve a problem that shouldn’t be a problem in the first place? Eliminate victimless crimes (drugs, prostitution, etc) and poof, it’s done.

    Everything is upside down now. We spend more money and effort trying to keep people from getting high than we do tracking down the assholes that robbed my neighbors of their hard earned property or the punks holding people up at knifepoint in the middle of the afternoon. Maybe if the government provided money and toys for that instead of drug task forces, they’d have their TV back.

    Peter, you have a voice and pedigree to back it up. You have come to the correct conclusion that the drug war is immoral and a failure. Why are you suggesting physical violence as an alternate punishment for something you believe shouldn’t be criminal in the first place? Someone in your position could contribute much more by publishing academic works in support of rescinding drug laws instead of this.

  16. #16 |  ClubMedSux | 

    I find it interesting that the general Agitariat seemed to get the gist of the article when Radley linked to it a week or so ago, but many seem to be missing the point this time around. “Faced with the choice between hard time and the lash, the lash is better. What does that say about prison?” Did some of you stop reading before getting to those last two sentences?

  17. #17 |  Kristen | 

    The question should be – how many of the people in prison are in there because of crimes that should never be crimes? Gambling, drugs, prostitution? How many are in prison because of erroneous convictions? The answer isn’t a different form of punishment, but what activities we punish people for in the first place.

  18. #18 |  scott | 

    I could be completely wrong but I don’t get the impression that Peter is advocating flogging exclusively in lieu of imprisonment. It isn’t an either/or proposition. I think he’s trying to point out that it’s about damned time we began to look at A) the explosion of laws which have made all of us potential felons even for engaging in the most mundane behavior, B) alternative sentencing, and C) what exactly our cultural instinct is in regards to crime and punishment.

    In the past I’ve commented here before that I think our prison system is among the most inhumane in the world when considered against the backdrop of “land of the free” sentiment. Culturally we have actively embraced a system of imprisonment in which systemic rape is regarded as a feature rather than a bug. “Federal pound-me-in-the-ass prison” is a famous movie punchline and I don’t think a week goes by in which I don’t hear someone express a sentiment along the lines of “I hope X goes to prison and becomes someone’s girlfriend”.

  19. #19 |  SJE | 

    To those who argue that its stupid law and not too much jail, I say its not either/or: we have BOTH
    1. Overcriminalization of behavior AND
    2. To much incarceration as the solution.

    The point about flogging is that it is an alternative to prison. We rail against the brutality of flogging, but ignore the terrible impact and cost of jail. I’d rather be flogged than jailed.

  20. #20 |  pegr | 

    Parody, people. He’s not really serious. His point is that we have over-criminalized behavior, generally because politicians pander with fear and lies.

    Ultimately, we get the government we deserve.

  21. #21 |  JS | 

    Also the answer is not only decriminalization of things but less cops!!!! Why do have such a high prison population? Partly at least the increase in prisoners is due to the increase in law enforcement personel. You can’t add increasingly more cops at all levels of government (apperently even the FDA has their own SWAT team now) without this resulting in more and more arrests, which provide more and more work for everyone involved in the whoile rotten business, from bail bondsmen to lawyers to prison guards. Less laws and vastly less law enforecement personel.

  22. #22 |  Carl Drega | 

    “You might not agree with everything Peter says, but no one in this country has an answer for the atrocity he describes in his second paragraph.”

    Bullshit Jess – adding to ways the government can fuck with us – is not the only solution. The solution is quite simply to end the drug war. Full stop. All drugs of all kinds are now completely legal for anyone over 18. End of problem. Flogging or other physical torture is not the only answer.

  23. #23 |  namowal | 

    Once when I was 6 or 7 I did something wrong and my mom gave me the option of a spanking (with a ruler) or being grounded for a day. It was summer and I wanted to play with my friends, so I chose the spanking. (Of course this was in the 80s when parents actually let their kids run around the neighborhood and play.) I’m not sure what sparked my mom to give me the choice. I remember dreading the spanking but still feeling somehow empowered by the fact that I chose it.

  24. #24 |  Powersox | 

    So, what happens to things like the innocence project? If one is somehow and inexplicably convicted by one of those DA’s who really do have the public interest at heart (and might have made a really tiny, completely innocent mistake untouched by any form of corruption), obviously they’d probably take the flogging as opposed to losing X years of their life. What incentive is there for people to continue to search for justice, when someone has already received the full punishment and are back among family and friends?

  25. #25 |  Geof | 

    Personally, I think that the statement … “too many people in prison so we should punish differently” … misses the important step of asking, “why are putting so many people into prison?”

    In short, if many people are going into prison for “crimes” that (arguably) in many cases have no victims — gambling, drug use and prostitution — then I would say the initial observation is a symptom instead of the problem.

  26. #26 |  Chuchundra | 

    Peter, I find your Modest Proposal quite compelling.

  27. #27 |  Yizmo Gizmo | 

    IN times of crisis, anagrams must be considered.
    Forget flogging.
    I propose ggolfing as punishment.
    Put them out there on the ggolf course in jailbird stripes.
    No sunscreen, no sunglasses, no caddy. No lunch either. Just ggolf.

  28. #28 |  Dante | 

    The problems with flogging as a replacement for our current criminal justice system’s inadequacies:

    One: The people who currently occupy positions within our criminal justice system are the defective type who actually enjoy flogging people for sport. So, in the end, we would merely add a recreational activity for them, without any commensurate reduction of incarceration.

    Two: The people who currently occupy positions within our criminal justice system will never, ever, EVER allow a reduction of prisoners, or changes to the policies which produce mass-incarceration. That is how they get paid, and they very much like getting paid.

    Get it? Nothing would change in our cesspool of criminal justice, but we would now add flogging for the enjoyment of the selfish, sadistic goons who call themselves public servants.

  29. #29 |  hilzoy fangirl | 

    I see no reason. I find no evil. This man is harmless, so why does he upset you? He’s just misguided. Thinks he’s important. But to keep you vultures happy, I shall flog him!

  30. #30 |  JS | 

    Dante “Two: The people who currently occupy positions within our criminal justice system will never, ever, EVER allow a reduction of prisoners, or changes to the policies which produce mass-incarceration. That is how they get paid, and they very much like getting paid”

    Totally agree. This is the biggest problem. Arresting and imprisoning people is a huge and lucrative industry. That is why it will never be reduced.

  31. #31 |  Mattocracy | 

    Why are so many people assuming that Peter is for the drug war and wants to flog stoners? I think that’s a pretty unfair assumption.

  32. #32 |  MassHole | 

    I don’t think anyone is mistaken about Peter’s stance on the drug war, he is very up front about it. I think this is what is causing the push back on his flogging suggestion:

    “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?”

    He is clearly suggesting drug criminals have flogging as an option to incarceration. Many of us see that as misguided and counter productive when we already agree that these people should not be criminals in the first place, much less punished.

  33. #33 |  ClubMedSux | 

    From Peter’s Chronicle article:

    “My defense of flogging—whipping, caning, lashing, call it what you will—is meant to be provocative, but only because something extreme is needed to shatter the status quo. We are in denial about the brutality of the uniquely American invention of mass incarceration. In 1970, before the war on drugs and a plethora of get-tough laws increased sentence lengths and the number of nonviolent offenders in prison, 338,000 Americans were incarcerated. There was even hope that prisons would simply fade into the dustbin of history. That didn’t happen.”

    I would distill his thesis as such: Our society’s ignorant view of incarceration as humane allowed the government to adopt a policy of mass incarceration without objection from ordinary citizens. If convicts given the choice between “barbaric” flogging and “civilized” jail time would choose the former, it would show how barbaric the latter truly is. And if ordinary citizens were aware of that, they might reconsider whether a policy of mass incarceration is a good idea in the first place. It’s not about flogging stoners; it’s about illustrating the realities of the modern prison system.

  34. #34 |  MikeZ | 

    My long term opinion on this is that for the majority of the current crimes where flogging would prove to be acceptable to society, shouldn’t be criminalized anyway. Sure the guy caught with some pot would choose the whip over real jail time, but even better is he doesn’t have to choose. For ‘real’ criminals flogging doesn’t seem to be acceptable to society. I might choose to be flogged if someone gave me a million dollars, wouldn’t some thief decide that if the punishment of robbing a bank is only the whip it is worth it? Flogging is real punishment but doesn’t seem to take anything lasting from the victim, so doesn’t seem to work for a lot of crimes.

    Now in the short term, Bringing up flogging does seem to be effective if underhanded argument in helping debate punishment for consensual crimes. It forces those who support sending pot smokers/prostitutes to jail into the position of either advocating whipping people or claiming that whipping people isn’t punishment enough.

  35. #35 |  Mori | 

    The problem with flogging is that it’s too cheap. Prison at least is so expensive that the state can’t afford much more of it. If we normalize flogging, they’ll have a punishment that they can afford to deal out for any little transgression of their whims.

  36. #36 |  JdL | 

    I think the proposal is nonsense. There are two classes of people in our criminal “justice” system:

    . Those guilty of crimes with no victim. They should be freed without any punishment whatever.

    . Those guilty of a genuine crime, with a victim. They should be neither incarcerated (unless clearly unfit to live in society) nor flogged; instead they should be charged with making restitution to their victim(s).

    Flogging people brutalizes them, as does incarceration. You might consider reading the columns of Glen Allport on strike-the-root dot com for a deeper understanding of this vital subject.

  37. #37 |  DarkEFang | 

    I should probably point out that when it was in regular use as a punishment, it was not uncommon for people to die during a flogging.

  38. #38 |  Rick | 

    A little off topic…but I see no mention whatsoever of how many of those prisoners are illegal Mexicans. I think that gorges the numbers substantially. Build the freaking fence, pull the troops from Germany, Afghanistan, and Iraq, and put them on our Southern border. Do an Eisenhower roundup on all illegals, and lastly…stop that stupid War on Drugs. Problem solved.

  39. #39 |  Irving Washington | 

    And when you win your appeal because of a Brady violation, the Supreme Court can reverse your conviction and unflog you.

  40. #40 |  Danny | 

    In fairness, it should probably be mentioned that, at least according to published reports available online, flogging in certain jurisdictions like Aceh Indonesia has consisted of a restrained striking with a rod above the clothing of an unbound person — a largely symbolic punishment of public humiliation, with nothing like “skin ripped from the body” as happens in Singapore and Malaysia. (However, other instances in Aceh have been more violent.)

    Certainly most convicted persons would prefer this to any substantial monetary fine, let alone prison.

  41. #41 |  Peter Moskos | 

    I am very against the drug war. But until we have a perfect world, I’ll settle for a better world.

    Matt, Why flogging as opposed to other forms of pain? I talk about that a bit in my book, but, the many of the arguments I make could apply to other forms of punishment. But flogging is better: quick, honest, and cheap. It’s also non-lethal when done right (unlike, say, the Taser).

    My argument is about prison. Indeed, if I thought prisons were the answer, I wouldn’t have written this book. And if it takes defending flogging to get people to think about prison, so be it! But this book isn’t some secret bait-and-switch. I defend flogging because I think it is better than prison for society and for the person punished. There probably is a better third way, but it’s not politically realistic. Prison reforms (I wish them the best of luck) get dismissed as soft on criminals. I think it’s important to punish. The question then, is how.

    Rick, very few. Non-citizens (including *legal* immigrants) make up 4.1% of total state and federal prisoners (94,498 out of 1,613,656, year end 2009). By comparison, about 7% of the total United States population are non-citizens.

    DarkEFang, you should not be so baffled. Because you’re not right. Or should I say you’re half right. Prisons were designed to break people… in order to save them. To cure them. The purpose of the penitentiary was to provide an alternative to punishment. That was the idea (in some big-rock-candy-mountain world it still is). Prisons were not *designed* for punishment.

  42. #42 |  Robert | 

    The whole population of china are prisoners, so no, we do not have the most in prison.

  43. #43 |  Nate | 

    People seem to miss that he right off says that he would end the drug war tomorrow if he had the power. The post seems to be advocating allowing the charged another option to forgo prison time. The assumption that many would jump at the opportunity to be flogged, skin cleaved from back, rather than spend time in prison is to make us reflect on the cruelty of prison (worse than flogging). Maybe I just like to read things as provocative metaphor rather than straight literalism more than others. No matter what, all us at this site are members of the resistance in the war on consent.

  44. #44 |  Peter Moskos | 

    Funny, that’s not what the Chinese people I know tell me.

  45. #45 |  Peter Moskos | 

    Nate, thank you for understanding my position. Perhaps I wasn’t clear enough. I propose we give those convicted a choice. The status quo is always an option. Of course the argument can be made that flogging is too soft. But then we’ve moved beyond that more facile position that flogging is too cruel to consider.

  46. #46 |  Andrew Roth | 

    Pardon the threadjacking, but there hasn’t been a daily link posting today, and this will be a serious infringement on civil rights and liberties if it gets any traction:,0,4889997.story

    We need to get the word out on this harebrained infringement on civil liberties.

  47. #47 |  Highway | 

    Peter, is your opinion that flogging is better than prison in all cases, or that having the option of flogging *or* prison *or* something else we come up with would be a better system. Because while I agree that the latter situation would be better, I’m not sure that just replacing prison with flogging would be better.

    Maybe a system where flogging is available for petty crimes, yet prison is available as a punishment with the opportunity for rehabilitation. Because while the rehabilitation doesn’t work for the majority of prisoners (and how much of the reason is because there are a lot of prisoners around who don’t want to rehabilitate?) it *does* work for some. For some it can give them the space to change their habits, the space from their previously destructive lives they need.

    It’s somewhat the same argument that is made about public schools. Having kids who aren’t interested in school forced to attend has the effect of dragging others down. Separate out the ones who are interested in school and they may thrive.

  48. #48 |  Nate | 

    And overall, he’s only suggesting it as an option for the convicted. Is this another instance where we are grossed out by people having more choices?

  49. #49 |  Leon Wolfeson | 

    Sure, if you want society to go down the tubes. The mentality that it’s acceptable for the state to order the infliction of physical suffering on someone?

    Er…I’m a mid-left winger, and I am not at ALL comfortable with that.

    There needs to be more creativity in punishments, including elements of humiliation in some cases (such as their name and crime being published), but physical suffering? No.

    America’s justice system is plain broken. Even our radical-right Tories are supporting the plans to slash the prison population in the UK…

  50. #50 |  Peter Moskos | 

    Highway, I think flogging is better for most cases. Serious violent cases, too (unless we’re afraid of the person). We’d have a better chance at “rehabilitation” if we didn’t put people in prison. But I put that word in quotes because I’m very skeptical of the concept. What exactly are we “habilitating”? “Help” is probably a better concept. But who wants to help criminals?

  51. #51 |  Peter Moskos | 

    Leon, What so wrong with pain? The state currently inflicts horrible mental pain (sometimes physical, too) with prison. Why not at least be honest about it?

    And I wish we could get the (comparatively low) levels of incarceration seen in England and Wales. I think this may be a uniquely American solution to a uniquely American problem. I’m open to other ideas… I just don’t see how it’s going to reduce our prison population by 85% (which is what we need to do to get our levels in line with the rest of the “civilized” world).

  52. #52 |  Jess | 

    @Carl Drega

    So what is your solution to the atrocity Peter describes in his second paragraph? Are you just going to wave your magic wand and all the bad people will go away? All the entrenched interests who have been enriching themselves on the criminalization of everything will just decide they don’t want those fat incarceration benjamins anymore?

    Typical libertarians imagine themselves so wise in the ways of political economy, and then insist that if we get really organized this time, the scales will fall from the eyes of the electorate, the politicians will decide to do their patriotic best, and we’ll finally get that perfect government for which we’ve pined so long. That unexamined yay-democracy codependent moonbattery is the true steaming heap of naive bullshit. The system we have produces results of a certain type: manufactured problems, clueless strategy, brutal tactics, and ever-increasing spending. Our Drug War is an exemplar of that, but you’d have to be blind not to see it everywhere. The reason is not that those bad people are doing bad things, but because human action is motivated by habit and self-interest, of which both motivations tend to produce the results we observe.

    In order to change the results, we have to change the game. We won’t win the one we’re playing now. We won’t win by stating ever-more-emphatically that we just have to solve the real problem, “full stop”. Large numbers of Americans must decide for themselves that most law enforcement personnel and prosecutors deserve to be unemployed, if not incarcerated (although the latter might prolong the problem?). That is not a pareto-efficient change, and that is not a peaceful change. The pigs are doing their best to display their true natures to the masses, but they like their job, and they have a huge head start. We must be prepared to speak plainly. You don’t like to imagine two million state-sponsored anal rape victims, but you’re not nearly as sorry as the victims are. How many more people must the prison monster devour before you’ll accept a second-best solution? The fact that you can’t recognize an obvious rhetorical flourish when Radley isn’t around to explain it in short sentences leads me to despair.

    You, like most commenters, have fixated on your revulsion at the modest proposal in order to shield your gaze from the tragedy. If this is enough to make us squeamish, how are we going to ask Granny to ignore the racebaiting politicians?

  53. #53 |  RomanCandle | 

    Like most of the commenters here have said, the problem with prisons is that too much human behavior is now illegal. The War on Drugs pretty much makes being a cop or a prison official a nearly impossible job to do.

    Ending the War on Drugs would solve so many of our society’s problems within a generation. And the issue of whether a first-world nation in the 21st century should flog criminals would be moot.

  54. #54 |  gottabeKiddingme | 

    Well most of these comments disgust me. With all the wrongful convictions, police abuses, false charges cooked up by prosecutors, THIS AUTHOR HAS YOU GUYS CHOOSING ONE FORM OF STATE VIOLENCE OVER ANOTHER….


    Tell me, are you refugees from another board or do you have some other motive for being here?

  55. #55 |  Peter Moskos | 

    RomanCandle, I couldn’t agree more about ending the War on Drugs. I already wrote a book calling for drug legalization (Cop in the Hood). But nobody listened to me. What do we do until we end the drug war?

  56. #56 |  RomanCandle | 


    I see where you’re coming from, I really do. I guess the point I’m trying to make is that I see only one real solution to this problem. And any other solution (flogging in this case) is just a superfluous distraction that gets us farther away from our real goal.

    Or, to put in another way, we shouldn’t be asking “what do we do until we end the drug war” because even asking that question takes away from our ability to actually end the drug war.

    Does that make sense?

    Perhaps I’m too focused on the big picture. As an ex-cop in the trenches of The Drug War, I assume your experiences left you with a desire to help the individuals affected by our broken policy, even if it is on a relatively small scale. Hence your advocacy for a “here and now” band-aid.

  57. #57 |  Peter Moskos | 

    Absolutely what you say makes sense. And yes, you could see it as a “hear and now band-aid.” Nothing is wrong with a band aid if you’re bleeding! (Though I don’t think a call to reduce incarceration by 85% is small scale. It’s like handing out 2 million band-aids.) I don’t buy the idea that we need to fix all our problems before we can make things better.

    And I hope (I may be wrong) that defending flogging is a way to get more people to talk about these issues… People who would otherwise be unresponsive to repeated calls for better justice and an end to the drug war.

  58. #58 |  Leon Wolfeson | 

    Peter – The concept that torture is acceptable (and no beating about the bush, that’s what it is) for the state is my problem with the idea. More, the NHS would have to to pick up the – and it will be frequent – bills from it, here. What happens there, when the people involved almost certainly will have no access to anything but emergency healthcare?

    Anyway; That the US is not serious about the basics like proving medication in prison and preventing prison rapes? Well, no, there’s no credit for “fixing” those with non-prison solutions in my eyes, when they shouldn’t be a problem in the first case.

    The UK has a very *high* incarceration rate, when prison for short terms is a bad waste of taxpayer’s money and doesn’t work. Also, we’re having massive discussions as to police doctrine over kettling at riots, let along anything nearly as bad as I hear about all the time in America.

    Even given that, we have the advantage of relatively uniform police training standards, strict limits on the powers of other government agents and even stricter ones on the powers of private security. The sort of police services you find in schools, for example, in the US are simply not allowed here.

    (Incidentally, the government’s bad science in the UK about drug risks – and it’s been a series of governments who have done this, not just the Tories for a change – makes the news on a fairly regular basis…)

  59. #59 |  Peter Moskos | 

    I’m not willing to concede that flogging is torture. I don’t support torture (at least as I define torture).

    I don’t think legally sanctioned flogging is torture. At least, not unless you think all corporal punishment (even parental spanking?) is torture. Mind you, many people and organizations (U.N. & Amnesty Int’l) *do* define all physical punishment as torture. I disagree.

    I talk about this in greater detail in the book, but the short version is that torture is usually a means to an end. You continue torture until somebody breaks. Simply to cause pain as punishment, have it be finite and defined, and with consent of the flogged? I don’t see how that’s torture. And even if it is, it’s the lesser of two tortures.

    As to your high incarcerate rate… I’d be thrilled to “only” incarcerate as many people as the UK. You got nothing on us. If I remember correctly, England and Whales (which I use because it’s one statistical unit) have an incarceration rate of about 140 per 100,000. The US incarceration rate is 740 per 100,000. 530% higher. All of the UK probably has fewer than 100,000 prisoners. We’ve got 2.3 million. We’re just in different leagues (if I knew enough about your football, I’d make some clever analogy…).

  60. #60 |  leviramsey | 

    My dad ran for the Massachusetts State Legislature as an independent in 1976 against Billy (brother of Whitey…) Bulger. One of his campaign planks was “alternative punishments for juvenile offenders”, which basically meant bringing back the stocks/pillory to subject the convicted to public humiliation.

    At least he got more votes than the Communist.

  61. #61 |  Marty | 

    I can’t really wrap my brain around flogging. Not the nice, public humiliation, over the clothes flogging, but the Singapore caning. With our incarceration rates, half the population would have these scarlet letters on their backs. I guess this would start competing with tattoos for bad-ass body art. The free market guy in me welcomes this cottage industry, I guess.
    I’ll probably check out your book, because I enjoyed the first one. It’ll have to be one helluva convincing argument for me to buy into this alternative, though.

  62. #62 |  Peter Moskos | 

    Strangely, I don’t talk much about shame and humiliation in the book. Partly because I wanted to keep the book short. I believe that a bit of shame isn’t a bad thing. It’s better than our culture’s fixation on guilt and remorse.

    Marty, any man who bought and enjoyed my first book is a friend of mine! Can I get you a drink or adjust the AC?

    For what it’s worth, not that it’s a major difference (but it does slightly lessen the slavery parallels) Singapore flogs on the ass, not the back. So inasmuch as the scars might be a scarlet letter, it would not be one that you could easily show off in public, even if you wanted to.

    The really hard-core would no doubt do something like get tattoos to compliment the scars.

  63. #63 |  Righhhhhttt... | 

    I think it needs to be mentioned that a huge number of people have an impression that prison is this nice cushy place where you get cable TV, exercise, libraries, work training, and all kinds of nice liberal criminal coddling. Another significant fraction (maybe the majority) understand that prisons are dehumanizing torture mills, but are totally okay with that because….because…fuck criminals, that’s why. Using stories and statistics about how prisons are so bad flogging should be an alternative won’t work because the first group won’t believe you, and the second group will likely get a boner from the idea of torturing what they consider sub-humans.

    I don’t have a better suggestion at the moment, but I think the flogging suggestion is just preaching to the choir, and won’t change too many minds.

  64. #64 |  Peter Moskos | 

    I never really thought of there being a big choir of floggers. Well… at least I hope they buy my book.

    The book’s goal is to convince the first group you talk of. The second group scares me.

  65. #65 |  Highway | 

    That group scares me as well, and is the biggest reason I’m very reticent about having an overtly physical punishment. We have cops out there who instead of using Tasers as a less powerful gun, and only using it where their sidearm would be appropriate, use it as more powerful mace, or a long-range nightstick, something to force compliance, when it may not be necessary. And we have a lot of people, every time that happens, saying “Yeah! Shoulda tased him again!”

    Criminals aren’t people to them. They broke a law. And it doesn’t even matter what the law was. It was a law. And they broke it. So they’re scum, and they deserve whatever they get. It’s really frightening. And isn’t that what we’re supposed to have a government for: To protect us from that mob?

  66. #66 |  JOR | 

    Well, as long as we’re dealing with what’s politically possible through official channels, we’re never going to replace prisons with flogging. If you can convince the prison lords and the typical American savage who supports their system to adopt flogging, it will only be as an addition to the prison system, not as an optional substitute.

    The problem is that there are not two groups out there, as #60 thinks there are. Rather, people who complain about prisons being too cushy and luxurious, and people who admiringly acknowledge the horror of it all, are one and the same.

  67. #67 |  JOR | 

    “I believe that a bit of shame isn’t a bad thing. It’s better than our culture’s fixation on guilt and remorse.”

    Shame is just the collectivist form of guilt. And we have as much of it as any culture ever has. We differ (to the extent that we differ) from other cultures in the content of what we shame people for. For instance, we shame rape victims far less than many other cultures do (though far more than we should); sexually conservative cultures shame the promiscuous; sex-obsessed modern Westerners shame virgins. Etc.

  68. #68 |  Peter Moskos | 

    But criminals don’t feel shame. In other countries, they do. Or at least some other countries. And I’m not just talking about Japan. I remember when I lived in Greece, whenever criminals would be shown on the news (in a kind of perp-walk), they would be hiding their faces. There was no strutting and tough-guy posture. I asked Greeks about this and they often said, “they’re ashamed for their families.” It’s hard to imagine a typical American criminal feeling this way.

    I wouldn’t say shame is a collective guilt. I would say that guilt is when you feel bad about doing something wrong. Shame is when you feel bad about what others will think about what they think you did (and is actually not directly related to your actually guilt, in a criminal sense). Guilt is self-centered; shame is other-directed. Caring about how others perceive your actions isn’t very American.

  69. #69 |  Highway | 

    Is that because we have different criminals? Or is it because the shame component of ‘criminality’ has been reduced by the fact that so much activity is considered ‘criminal’, even when it’s just people doing things that don’t objectively hurt other people.

    The laws need some credibility if people are going to feel shame for breaking them. And too many laws means that the credibility of all of them goes down the tubes. Maybe this goes back to Prohibition as well, where all of a sudden, an activity that millions of people indulged in was suddenly ‘criminal’, because of the high pressure lobbying of a vocal minority. How can you not feel contempt for that minority and that law? And every day, more laws are made making more and more things a ‘crime’.

    This is what prohibition (alcohol *and* drugs) has wrought.

  70. #70 |  Robert | 

    “Funny, that’s not what the Chinese people I know tell me.”

    Then they’re not telling you the whole story. Look up the practice of “Hukou” (household registration). Basically, the chinese gov tells them where they are allowed to live. If they do move to an unapproved area, the gov shuts them off from services.

  71. #71 |  Robert | 

    And even North Korea, which only an idiot would argue is not a prison of it’s own right, has 23 million population.

  72. #72 |  JS | 

    Highway “The laws need some credibility if people are going to feel shame for breaking them. And too many laws means that the credibility of all of them goes down the tubes. ”

    Great point!

  73. #73 |  Rick | 

    Peter, I question your numbers. Supposedly there are about 12 million illegals residing in the country and that is obviously growing. To say that only 94K of these are inmates makes the neighbors down south a very, very well behaved group.

  74. #74 |  Vindi | 

    All though I understand where the writer is coming from, I find that after being a Prison Nurse for years & years….flogging someone would only make them “stand out” as being tough, and wouldn’t stop him/her from repeating the offense they were flogged for. After watching inmates beat/pulverize another inmate, the guy that got the poopy end of the stick/beat was ALWAYS the top dog, taking a butt whoopin’ and being hailed as “hard core”. No, the only thing flogging someone would provoke, would be the humiliation, right then….only temporarily!! They’d get over it, real quick, and pick up where they left off.

  75. #75 |  Vindi | 

    Biggest problem with our prison system: The offenders are treated like they’re visiting Grandma’s house. I witnessed this, for years. Medical, dental, 3 squares, warm clean bed…..clothes washed…..commisary for candy, chips, personal items. This isn’t prison….this is a vacation!!! Make prison miserable…see how many want to return.

  76. #76 |  Leon Wolfeson | 


    I consider the application of physical force *for systematic control* between fundamentally unequal actors as torture in all cases.

    There’s a major difference between using force in unequal situations in momentary situations – smacking a kid, once, when he won’t stop doing something actively dangerous, or a police line between rival demonstrations pushing people back.

    But as a systematic control? Spanking the kid and sending him to bed when he breaks certain rules, or “sending in” the police to break up riots? No, I can never support those.

    (Between fundamentally equal actors, like consenting adults, I’m happy for an awful lot to happen – heck, if a contract is signed in situations where it’s clear it’s consensual (i.e. in front of several lay justices (magistrates/ justices of the peace, in UK usage), who read it aloud), I’m happy for virtually every right to be signed away if that’s what they *want*)

    Then there’s the reason I believe Western – most notably American, followed by British – society has headed the way it has, in that it’s effectively machine-focused. Machines, computers (and AI, when it comes, since we’re sleepwalking into it) are the end rather than the means to an end, and I dislike this intensely, I’d prefer a people-focused stance; To *enhance humans* rather than rely on robots, for an example.

    (It’s not an anti-tech stance, it’s simply a people-focused technological stance which rejects the (very different) concepts of singularitarianism and bioconservatism)

  77. #77 |  Leon Wolfeson | 

    Oh, and on the prison thing? It’s about 150 per 100,000 in England/Wales. Most EU countries are below 100 (including Northern Ireland, for that matter). To me, a big part of the story is the societal matrix, given minorities are disproportionally represented in prison populations. Consider a year’s national service when you’re 18, always in a different part of the country to where your parents live. You’d meet people of different backgrounds, work with them… while accomplishing certain projects that the Government needs done while reducing the general government workforce.

  78. #78 |  Peter Moskos | 

    Leon, I hadn’t considered the concept of “systematic control” vis-a-vis torture. I’ll have to mull that over. And funny you mention national service. My father was a big proponent of that with Clinton. It got watered-down and became Americorps.

    Rick, immigrants (legal and illegal) *are* generally a well behaved group. Better than native-born Americans (at least statistically less likely to end up in prison). That’s what most anti-immigrant people don’t know or don’t want to believe. And the number I’m talking about are for *all non-citizens* (even those here legally). I have no idea what percentage of that number are illegal immigrants from Mexico. But of course it would be some fraction of the 94,500.

    The numbers can be seen here:

  79. #79 |  Peter Moskos | 

    Robert, OK, you win: we’re better than North Korea. If that’s our goal, I think we should set our sights higher.

  80. #80 |  Leonard | 

    As a right-wing anarchist, sign me up for flogging! We need a cheaper and better punishment than incarceration, at least for many criminals. Some criminals, yeah, are an ongoing threat to public safety, and should be kept behind bars. Most aren’t.

    That said, you do not seem to acknowledge that flogging would not be used only as a replacement for imprisonment. Why? Because imprisonment is expensive: this is largely a bad thing, but from the antistate perspective, it is also somewhat of a virtue. The use of imprisonment is limited by the willingness of the people to pay taxes, which is not infinite. (God help us when the financial meltdown comes and we let all those guys back out into society.) The stress on prisons is already a major factor in many states influencing how the criminal justice system processes criminals.

    By contrast, flogging is ultra cheap. We could punish people far, far more in a hypothetical society that uses flogging than we can in our own. If we came to accept flogging at all, we would use it more. I see this as largely a good thing — we need more punishment of real criminals. (That victimless criminals would be similarly tormented is unfortunate, but no progress is without price.) But that “more” is exactly why progressives will never accept it, even in lieu of imprisonment.

    Well, that and the fact that it is corporal punishment. Progressives have a fetish about the body that simply doesn’t apply to imprisonment.

  81. #81 |  Leonard | 

    A few other general comments in an interesting thread.

    First, let me suggest the argument from “too many prisoners” is really, really weak. Look: in Great Britain they don’t lock people up the way we do. Rather, it is catch and release in way that I doubt many Americans understand. And many of the people live in low-level terror as a result. “Youths” can assault anyone anywhere with little or no consequence.

    It is not completely clear why modernity has spawned such a tremendous rise in criminality, but it clearly has. For example, according to official statistics, between 1900 and 1992 the crime rate in Great Britain, indictable offenses per capita known to the police, increased by a factor of 46. God knows what it may be now. Probably down, since the government has adopted a policy of reducing measured crime by attempting to prevent measurement.

    So: would I prefer Great Britain’s system, or ours, for dealing with crime? Ours. No contest.

    About torture, I don’t think splitting hairs on that is really a win. Is flogging “torture”? A quick look at shows that flogging fits all definitions they give. So I am willing to say yes, and support it anyway. I think you should stick to the point that, even though imprisonment does not work on the body, and therefore can be seen as narrowly non-tortuous, it is nonetheless worse than flogging by our revealed preference. And that says a lot.

    As for shame and guilt: I think you’re right on that. One of the reasons among others for the explosion of criminality in modernity is the loss of shame as a conditioner. People will do almost anything to keep the respect of those they consider their society. Where crime is considered deviant and abhorrent, that is still the case. But there are subcultures where it isn’t, and that is largely the problem we face. Can we manipulate, for example, inner-city black culture to consider crime wrong and acting white good? Dream on.

    As for the rates of immigrant criminality, two points on that. First, I think it is a little contradictory for you to praise Britain having only 100000 prisoners or whatever, but then suggest that 97000 non-citizen prisoners in America is no big deal. The number is the same. Either it is significant in both cases, or neither.

    Second, comparing the rates of immigrant criminality to native criminality largely misses the point that anti-immigration people are trying to make. Immigrants themselves should have reduced criminality, for two reasons. First, because they usually immigrate for a good reason, and just about any reason someone would choose to uproot himself from his native culture is going to filter people against criminality. By contrast, natives do not choose to come to America. But second, the very measurement of criminality is skewed for immigrants because their criminality in their home country is not being measured. You might kill a man in Guatemala, but as soon as you cross our southern border you add +1 to the denominator of our immigrant-crime-rate figure while adding +0 to the numerator. This necessarily lowers immigrant-crime-rate, as a mathematical truth. One final aspect of immigrant-crime-rate is that at least some criminal immigrants are deported rather than incarcerated here. This, again, must mathematically lower the rate compared to how a native would be handled.

    So, if you want to measure “immigrant” criminality, or rather, the long-term effect of allowing immigrants in, you should measure the criminality of second, third, etc. generation immigrants. This is comparing apples to apples. Can you guess whether this rate is higher or lower than natives?

  82. #82 |  demize! | 

    Peter, hmm, rum, sodomy, or the lash? Uhn I think I’ll write about the lash today.

  83. #83 |  More Immigrants Less Crime | The Agitator | 

    […] was enjoying a discussion in the comment section of my flogging post and thought this deserved its own […]

  84. #84 |  Leon Wolfeson | 

    Leonard – Downwards? No, not really. Not understanding the UK system and things like “either or” offences (with the rarely-chosen choice of a jury trial), and the changes increasing, dramatically, the crime figures…well, yea.

    More, you’re saying that absolute and not percentage prison populations are important? Oh heh.

  85. #85 |  LibertyTreeBud | 

    Put all the criminals onto a reservation (prison camp). Treat them like American Indians. They’ll kill themselves with drugs and alcohol and kill each other. Never given an ‘even shake’; deceived and betrayed they will wither and die off.

  86. #86 |  fwb | 

    How many are in prison for crimes against themselves? For crimes that are not legitimate crimes, such as 99% of all federal crimes? (Read you Constitution sometime and see the 4 areas the feds are allowed to make criminal. It’s there in black and white. All the rest are lies.)

  87. #87 |  Randoms of the last few days « Foseti | 

    […] is more bothersome to me than progressive discussions of the US prison population. "Despite our “land of the free” rhetoric, we deem it […]