Peter Moskos is about to publish a book entitled “In Defense of Flogging.” He’s not really advocating a return to the Cat O’ Nine Tails, however, but engaging in a so-called “thought experiment”, which Moskos, an assistant professor of law, police science, and criminal-justice administration at the John Jay College of Criminal Justice, summarizes at the end of his article on the topic (in the Chronical of Higher Education) like this:
“So is flogging still too cruel to contemplate? Perhaps it’s not as crazy as you thought. And even if you’re adamant that flogging is a barbaric, inhumane form of punishment, how can offering criminals the choice of the lash in lieu of incarceration be so bad? If flogging were really worse than prison, nobody would choose it. Of course most people would choose the rattan cane over the prison cell. 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?”
I’ll answer that: it says that imprisonment is a better and more efficient punishment for serious crimes than flogging, and who didn’t know that?
It also says that prison is long-term punishment while flogging, cruel as it is, is short term. I’d submit to a lot worse things than flogging, if the alternative was loss of my freedom and life in a prison cell for a substantial amount of time. Flog me? Fine–I’ll be up and burglarizing homes again in a couple of weeks…and maybe this time, I won’t get caught. Cut off a finger? OK…that’s inconvenient, but still better than jail.
Flogging is effective negative reinforcement, no doubt, and it is certainly retribution. Prison, however, is negative reinforcement, retribution and restraint. Moskos’s argument seems to be that the practice of putting criminals in prison is unethical because it creates “a disposable class of people to be locked away and discarded. True evil happens in secret, when the masses of “decent” folks can’t or don’t want to see it happen.”
Moskos’s argument is ethically offensive, and not because we justifiably recoil at his faux endorsement of flogging, which is clearly “cruel and unusual punishment.” Like reformer/ lawyer Clarence Darrow, who did not believe in free will, Moskos regards criminals as “a class,” and prison as a form of government-sponsored apartheid. Flogging makes sense if one regards that supposed criminal class as a species of animal that can be “trained” to behave lawfully among us by the judicious use of pain, much like Malcolm McDowell’s reprogramming in “A Clockwork Orange.” Since Moskos doesn’t want flogging instituted either, one is left with the suspicion that this just the latest in a long, long chain of progressive arguments, pre-dating Darrow, for not punishing criminals at all, because all punishment is cruel, and because criminals just can’t help themselves. We need to rehabilitate them, humanely. The fact that nobody has ever figured out how to do this never seems to factor into the discussion. As Homer Simpson once said on another topic, “It’s just something people say, like “ramalama-ding-dong,” or “Give peace a chance.”
Moskos tips us off with this section, which is typical of the breed:
“We deem it necessary to incarcerate more of our people—in rate as well as absolute numbers—than the world’s most draconian authoritarian regimes. Think about that. Despite our “land of the free” motto, we have more prisoners than China, and they have a billion more people than we do.”
And we have a lot more freedom than they do, too. The absence of the terror and fear created by genuine police states and authoritarian regimes encourages more people to commit crimes, but it encourages many others to do wondrous, daring, industrious and creative things. The large prison population is a bi-product of two factors: freedom, and independent decisions by a lot of people to commit crimes, for which they, and only they, are accountable.
That does not excuse corrupt, dangerous and unhealthy prisons. Prison reform, or the lack of it, is a national embarrassment of long-standing. Comparing imprisonment to flogging, however, is little more than a pedantic trick, designed to make us doubt the morality of all punishment, when in fact the existence of prisons testifies to the fact that this nation dares to give its citizens more freedom to abuse.