The Lash or the Prison Cell?


The author of a new book advocating flogging criminals instead of locking them up admits he was trying to “lob a hand grenade” into the debate on how to reform our incarceration nation.

Back in 2006, former Baltimore police officer and current John Jay College professor Peter Moskos was having dinner in New Orleans with friends—New Yorker writer Dan Baum and his wife—when the talk turned to current events. Baum mentioned that he'd recently read that public schools in the Crescent City were paddling misbehaving students.

Corporal punishment is illegal in New Orleans, as it is in most of the country, but according to Baum, parents at the school encouraged the practice.

“They were shocked,” remembers Moskos. “But it didn't surprise me all that much. I said I thought there was more support for corporal punishment in the public than most liberals think.”

Over dinner they debated the issue, and came up with a title for their discussion: “In Defense of Flogging.”

“We thought it would make a good book title, and when I mentioned it to the editor of my first book, Cop in the Hood , he said that I was going to write a book by that title and he was going to publish it.”

After several years of research and writing, the slim, controversial volume, entitled “In Defense of Flogging,” hit the shelves last month. Moskos' basic argument: If we had the choice between 10 lashes and five years in prison, most of us would rather have the lashes, probably because—as he says—we implicitly understand the “long-term mental torture of incarceration.”

While he concedes the idea makes him a “little queasy,” Moskos writes, “if you would want that choice for yourself, why, in the name of compassion and humanity, would you deny that choice to others?”

It's an intriguing question. In a conversation with The Crime Report's Julia Dahl, Moskos made clear his purpose was to “shock the elite and shake up the debate” about how to reform what he and many others call the prison industrial complex.

Is corporal punishment the way to free up taxpayers dollars and allow non-violent criminals to remain outside of prison, where they can remain productive and taxpaying citizens? You decide.

ED NOTE: To see what some other writers for The Crime Report think about Moskos' book, read Mansfield Frazier’s June 14 Viewpoint here.

The Crime Report: A lot of people have compared your book to Jonathan Swift's essay, “A Modest Proposal.” But Swift's work was pure satire, where yours is an honest look at a possible alternative punishment. Does the comparison frustrate you, or is it apt?

Peter Moskos: Neither. I like the comparison. True, I don't think Swift was really proposing eating babies; (while) I am seriously proposing giving the choice of being flogged. But I do see the book primarily as a thought experiment, having a little intellectual fun. In that sense, I think it is somewhat like “A Modest Proposal.” My book isn't a satire, but I am trying to address real issues and be a bit provocative. So it's not a crazy analogy. But I think I am more literally serious than Swift was.

TCR: When you started talking about this book to your friends in law enforcement and academia, did they take you seriously?

PM: I didn't want to talk about writing a book called “In Defense of Flogging” until I got tenure, because I was worried about the consequences. People have to read past the title to get to the heart of the argument. But by and large the reception has been amazingly positive. Nobody who has dealings with the criminal justice system—from lawyers, judges (and) police officers to victims and criminals—thinks it works very well.

So the time is right for some sort of fresh thinking. What I propose is not incremental change or tinkering with progress, I'm sort of trying to lob a hand grenade into the debate and see where it goes.

And I think that a lot of prison reformers understand that the status quo isn't working. We can talk about the need for reform all we want; but in the past four decades, while prison reformers have been fighting the good fight, all we've done is build more prisons. By sort of cutting to the chase and saying, let's forget this nonsense that prisons somehow help people and see it as the punishment it is, (I wanted to) offer an alternative.

TCR: What would it take to actually implement flogging as an alternative to incarceration? Could a county just decide to do it, or do laws need to be changed?

PM: State laws would have to be changed. Every state bans corporal punishment now as judicial punishment, and the Supreme Court banned corporal punishment in prisons as administrative punishment. I doubt that's going to happen, and you know, I'd be somewhat queasy if it did.

But then again, if it's done as I propose it, if it really kept people out of prison, I'd have to support it.

TCR: The whole book is built around your belief that almost anything, including excruciating physical harm, is better than prison in the U.S. What's so bad about our system of incarceration?

PM: I think if we had an incarceration rate like western Europe or Canada I probably would have never written the book. But we have seven times as many prisoners as we had in 1970. At some point, we won't be a free country if we incarcerate so many people. I do compare it to slavery—the idea that people now literally profit off human bondage. That should be seen as a moral issue, and I don't think it is yet. But I don't think history will look back very kindly on (our) prison industrial complex .

TCR: Your spend much of the book writing about not just the enormous prison population, but more pointedly about the failure of prisons in general to achieve their goal. What would it mean for prisons to work?

PM: For them to work it would mean that they would cure criminals. If you see their role simply as to hold people, they do that very well. But that wasn't their [original] purpose—they've become that. The other purpose is deterring crime, but if they deterred crime we wouldn't have more than two million prisoners.

The idea of just locking someone in a cage or a bunch of people in a room and somehow pretending that it's supposed to be good for the soul is absurd. I do think involuntary confinement is evil, except for the people we're afraid of—some people we have to lock up.

But I think it's absurd to keep Bernie Madoff in prison. I mean the guy needs to be punished, he did wrong; but he's not a threat.

One thing I hope the book would bring to the table (is) to educate people on the history of prisons, and also the idea of punishment. So much opposition to prisons does not take punishment into account.

The element of punishment has always been missing from the more liberal side of the debate, and I think that's to our detriment. [You] do something wrong, you get punished. We just have to make sure it's a moderate punishment, and appropriate. But unless we acknowledge the retributive side of the American public, nothing's going to happen.

Julia Dahl is deputy managing editor of The Crime Report. She welcomes readers' comments.

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