Why flogging is more humane than prison.
Photo: Peter Dazeley
You’re about to get whipped. Mentally more than physically. It’s going to hurt—but it’s supposed to.
I write in defense of flogging, something most people consider too radical for debate and even unworthy of intellectual discussion. But please, don’t turn the page, upset I dared to broach the subject.
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. There are 2.3 million Americans in our prisons and jails. That is too many. I want to reduce cruelty, and corporal punishment, once common in America and still practiced in places like Singapore, may be the answer.
So first let me begin with a simple question: Given the choice between five years in prison and ten brutal lashes, which would you choose?
Yes, flogging is a severe and even brutal form of punishment. Under the lash, skin is literally ripped from the body. But prison means losing a part of your life and everything you care for. Compared to this, flogging is just a few very painful strokes on the behind. And it’s over in a few minutes.
If you had the choice, if you were given the option of staying out of jail, wouldn’t you choose to be flogged and released?
Consider your answer to that question. Then consider the fact that 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 to incarcerate more of our people 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. There was even talk of abolishing prison altogether. That didn’t happen. Instead, fear of crime led to “tough-on-crime” politics and the war on drugs. Crime has gone up and down since then, but the incarceration rate has only increased, a whopping 500 percent in the past forty years.
In truth, there is very little correlation between incarceration and the crime rate. 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?
Today’s prison reformers—and I wish them well—tinker at the edges of a massive failed system. We need much more drastic action. To bring our incarceration back to a civilized level—one we used to have, and one much more befitting a rich, modern nation—we would have to reduce the number of prisoners by 85 percent. Without alternative punishments, this will not happen anytime soon. Even the most optimistically progressive opponent of prison has no plan to release two million prisoners.
Perhaps, as a law-abiding citizen, with all there is to worry about in the world today, you don’t have the fate of convicted criminals in our prison system at the top of your list of concerns. But who hasn’t, at some point, committed a crime? Perhaps you’ve taken illegal drugs. Maybe you once got into a fight with a friend, stranger, or lover that came to blows. Or you drove back from a bar drunk. Or you clicked on an online picture of somebody who turned out to be a bit young. Perhaps you accepted a “gift” from a family member and told the IRS it was a loan. Or did you go for the white-collar big leagues and embezzle millions of dollars? If your luck runs out, you can end up in jail for almost anything, big or small. Even if you have done nothing wrong, imagine that in a horrific twist of fate you are convicted of a crime you did not commit. It’s not inconceivable; it happens all the time.
As you sit in court on sentencing day, you begin to wonder what prison will be like. Are there drugs, gangs, and long times in solitary? Will you come out stronger—or broken? Will you be raped? Will it be like the brutal TV show Oz? God, you hope not. But you don’t know. And that’s the rub. Prison is a mystery to all but the millions of people forced to live and work in this gigantic government-run system of containment. And as long as we don’t look at what happens on the inside, as long as we refuse to consider alternatives, nothing will change.
Is flogging still too cruel to contemplate? If so, given the hypothetical choice between prison and flogging, why did you choose flogging? 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 to be caned 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?
Sometime in the past few decades we seem to have lost the concept of justice in a free society. Now we settle for simple efficiency of process. We tried rehabilitation and ended up with supermax and solitary confinement. Crime, violence, and drug prohibition help explain why so many people are behind bars. But they don’t explain why so many people are behind bars.
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. Pedophiles, terrorists, serial rapists, and murderers, for example, need to remain behind bars—but they are relatively few in number. They are being kept in prison not only to punish them, but also because we don’t want them to hurt us. We’re afraid of them. But for the millions of other prisoners—particularly those caught up in the war on drugs (which I for one would end tomorrow if I could)—the lash is better than a prison cell. Why not at least offer the choice?
Feed the Political AnimalDonate
Washington Monthly depends on donations from readers like you.