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 |  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).

  2. #2 |  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?

  3. #3 |  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.

  4. #4 |  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?

  5. #5 |  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?

  6. #6 |  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.

  7. #7 |  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.

  8. #8 |  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…)

  9. #9 |  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…).

  10. #10 |  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.

  11. #11 |  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.

  12. #12 |  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.

  13. #13 |  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.

  14. #14 |  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.

  15. #15 |  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?

  16. #16 |  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.

  17. #17 |  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.

  18. #18 |  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.

  19. #19 |  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.

  20. #20 |  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.

  21. #21 |  Robert | 

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

  22. #22 |  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!

  23. #23 |  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.

  24. #24 |  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.

  25. #25 |  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.

  26. #26 |  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)

  27. #27 |  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.

  28. #28 |  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:

  29. #29 |  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.

  30. #30 |  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.

  31. #31 |  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?

  32. #32 |  demize! | 

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

  33. #33 |  More Immigrants Less Crime | The Agitator | 

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

  34. #34 |  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.

  35. #35 |  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.

  36. #36 |  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.)

  37. #37 |  Randoms of the last few days « Foseti | 

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