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Five Years, or Five Lashes?

Posted by Josh Rothman  June 13, 2011 11:26 AM

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You've committed a crime, and been convicted. The judge offers you a choice: Five years, or five lashes with a rattan cane. Which would you choose? That's the question Peter Moskos asks in In Defense of Flogging. Moskos, a former Baltimore police officer, is now a professor at the John Jay School of Criminal Justice. His book is, as promised, a well-reasoned defense of flogging. It's also an attack upon the penal system. "Faced with the choice between hard time and the lash, the lash is better," he writes. "What does that say about prison?"

Moskos puts today's prisons in historical perspective, starting in the late 18th century, when corporal punishment was the norm. Though criminals were imprisoned, imprisonment was rarely a punishment in itself; instead, you'd be held in jail while awaiting trial, punishment, or execution. Jails were informal and even co-ed. Then, around the turn of the century, religious reformers changed everything, arguing that flogging was inhumane, and that the goal of punishment should be moral rejuvenation. Over the next fifty years, corporal punishment was outlawed, and imprisonment became the justice system's primary tool. Criminals were moved to small, individual cells, in which they could meditate on their crimes and ask God for penance. The new prisons were called, appropriately, "penitentiaries."

Almost immediately, Moskos explains, the penitential system ran aground. Prisoners didn't repent; in fact, the confinement and boredom made them crazy. (Charles Dickens, on tour in America, wrote that the prison cell was deeply inhumane -- it buried criminals alive in a "stone coffin.") To save money, larger prisons were built. Fast forward two hundred years, and you have a system of punishment that is, Moskos argues, vast, inhumane, ineffectual, and incoherent. "I can't think of another institution," he writes, "that has failed as mightily as the prison has."

Moskos is no punishment zealot -- in fact, he wants us to face up to just how much punishment we're already meting out. Most of the book is devoted to enumerating the horrors of prison. Prisons, he argues, are essentially state-run torture chambers, with the torturing outsourced to the inmates. Corporal punishment still goes on, just under the table. We may turn up our noses at corporal punishment, he argues, but only because we're willfully ignorant of what really goes on in American prisons. Against all the evidence, we continue to buy into the humanitarian founding myths of the prison system.

In fact, he writes, our system is more violent now than it's ever been. Effectively, we sentence child abusers "to torture followed by death." We condemn prisoners to insanity-inducing isolation, and "force straight men to have semiconsensual prison-gay sex." Ultimately, Moskos argues, it would be better to rewind the clock. Flogging is simpler, cheaper, and more humane; it puts punishment out in the open, where it belongs. Moskos suggests that many criminals could be offered the choice between time and flogging, with two lashes being equivalent to each year in jail. Victims, or judges, could be given veto power.

It's hard to say how serious Moskos is being (though my money is on "pretty serious"). Even if you aren't convinced that flogging is the future, though, Moskos' deeper argument is still compelling. The act of punishment, he argues, is inherently strange, uncomfortable, and unsettling; there's a natural impulse to hide it away. Our prison system, though, shows that this is a mistake. Today, he writes, Americans are like the citizens in the science-fiction film Soylent Green. In that movie, it turns out that a popular food is made of people. "So," Moskos writes, "is our system of corrections." Instead of piling on the prison terms, we need to start asking hard questions about the value and meaning of punishment. Until then, we'll never have a sensible prison system.

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About brainiac Brainiac is the daily blog of the Globe's Sunday Ideas section, covering news and delights from the worlds of art, science, literature, history, design, and more. You can follow us on Twitter @GlobeIdeas.
Brainiac blogger Kevin Hartnett is a writer in Columbia, South Carolina. He can be reached here.

Leon Neyfakh is the staff writer for Ideas. Amanda Katz is the deputy Ideas editor. Stephen Heuser is the Ideas editor.

Guest blogger Simon Waxman is Managing Editor of Boston Review and has written for WBUR, Alternet, McSweeney's, Jacobin, and others.

Guest blogger Elizabeth Manus is a writer living in New York City. She has been a book review editor at the Boston Phoenix, and a columnist for The New York Observer and Metro.

Guest blogger Sarah Laskow is a freelance writer and editor in New York City. She edits Smithsonian's SmartNews blog and has contributed to Salon, Good, The American Prospect, Bloomberg News, and other publications.

Guest blogger Joshua Glenn is a Boston-based writer, publisher, and freelance semiotician. He was the original Brainiac blogger, and is currently editor of the blog HiLobrow, publisher of a series of Radium Age science fiction novels, and co-author/co-editor of several books, including the story collection "Significant Objects" and the kids' field guide to life "Unbored."

Guest blogger Ruth Graham is a freelance journalist in New Hampshire, and a frequent Ideas contributor. She is a former features editor for the New York Sun, and has written for publications including Slate and the Wall Street Journal.

Joshua Rothman is a graduate student and Teaching Fellow in the Harvard English department, and an Instructor in Public Policy at the Harvard Kennedy School of Government. He teaches novels and political writing.


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