In Defense of Flogging: Controversial Conversation on Prisons, Punishment

BY Paul Solman  August 15, 2011 at 6:46 PM EST

We were curious: is flogging — beating someone solidly on the behind with a wooden cane — a reasonable, effective alternative to sending that person to jail for two, five, 10 years? That’s exactly what Peter Moskos, a police officer-turned-academic, argues in his new book, “In Defense of Flogging.”

“We have seven times as many people in prison as we did 40 years ago. We don’t have seven times as many criminals,” Moskos told Paul. “We’ve unfortunately…become the largest prison state the world has ever seen.”

We asked Moskos your questions (and a few of our own) in a recent interview, which you can watch above. His is an idea both fascinating and controversial. The problem, according to Moskos, is that the current prison system in the United States is bad. Beyond bad, actually — overcrowded, unmanageable (they can’t even keep drugs out, he says) and on a par with torture. Moskos thinks the idea of locking a non-violent criminal away as both punishment and treatment is a failed exercise.


A display of rattan judicial canes from the Johor Bahru Prison museum, Malaysia. Photo via the public domain by its author, PM Poon at the Wikipedia Project.

“[Prison] doesn’t work for rehabilitation — we know that. And it’s not just that they’re not rehabilitated, they become worse criminals. One of the horrible flaws of prison is we spend all this money to make people more likely to commit crime.”

Rather, if we could give criminals the choice of say, one lashing for every six months they’ve been sentenced to prison, we’d still be able to punish without destroying lives. (And choice is extremely important, says Moskos, as otherwise flogging would violate the 8th Amendment.) To be sure, he says, flogging is by no means ideal, but rather “the lesser of two evils.”

A good example of someone who’d be better off flogged than behind bars?

Bernie Madoff.

“He did really bad things and he needs to be punished, but he’s not a threat. No one is going to give him money [to invest]. And yet we can’t just let him go, because he did something wrong. But I don’t want to spend the money to keep him in prison — why are we as taxpayers paying money to punish Bernie Madoff? There’s got to be a better punishment.”

While flogging is a quick punishment, Moskos insists there is still a place for prisons in a civilized society — for the truly violent, scary and physically harmful people we need to be protected from.

“Prison is very good at keeping some people away from us, and we need prisons for that. Some people need to be locked up because they are violent recidivists.”

We’ve posed your questions to Moskos. You’ve heard his answers. So, what do you think?

After you take the poll, you may be interested in two responses from former convicts we featured recently on the NewsHour, both of whom received Bard College BAs while behind bars. Anthony Cardenales was a stick-up artist from the Bronx. When released from prison two years ago at age 34, he’d spent half his life locked up.

I wouldn’t defend flogging. I would argue against the prison system just by its design right now as opposed to putting it up against another solution that may not produce any better results. Flogging or any type of pain inflicted or fear-inducing practice would only be effective until that person overcomes it or builds a tolerance for it. So if I’m a person who’s tolerant for pain then flogging is going to be ineffective and if I’m a person that just overcomes my fear, then I’m not afraid of going through that experience.

Carlos Rosado, who was sentenced to 16 years for robbery and assault, majored in environmental studies for his Bard Behind Bars BA. He is out, and gainfully employed as a recycling engineer. How does he feel about flogging?

It depends. I think growing up, punishment was executed in different ways. Mom would spank sometimes, and that was sufficient for whatever the answer of the punishment needed to be, and at other times confinement into one’s room for reflection was sufficient. So, you know, I don’t know. I’ve got to read [the book]. When I read it I’ll be able to determine the merits of the argument.

This entry is cross-posted on the Rundown- NewsHour’s blog of news and insight. Follow Paul on Twitter.