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Today, London, 8 August 1964
Flogging, caning, spanking -- they are all aspects of our British passion for pain. It is, says KEITH ELLIS,
An Instinct that Shames us All
IMAGINE a heavy wooden triangle in the form of an easel. A prisoner is bending over a wooden block underneath. His ankles are shackled to the front legs. His hands are tied to the back.
A prison officer tentatively runs his fingers over a birch rod -- a bundle of springy twigs exactly two feet long and weighing precisely two pounds. [Completely wrong -- it was 48" long and the weight was 12 ounces -- C.F.] To make them more supple, they have been soaked in water overnight.
The chief officer calls "One." His colleague raises the birch and smashes it down on the bare buttocks of the prisoner.
The man's face twists in agony. A canvas screen prevents him from seeing his torturer.
Out of the corner of his eye, he can seen the watching prison doctor.
The second hand of the chief officer's watch crawls through its arc. The punishment must not be hurried.
After five seconds that seem like an age, he calls, "Two." Once more, the birch shatters the bruised flesh.
The doctor takes note of the prisoner's face. It is grey. But he is not concerned. His function is not to stop the infliction of pain but to save the authorities the embarrassment of a man dying under punishment.
"Three." As the third stroke swishes home, the prisoner loses all sense of his surroundings. A symphony of pain engulfs his whole being. By now, he can no longer keep track of time.
His entire consciousness is dominated by the thought of the next stroke and the next -- until his torture comes to an end or the doctor calls a halt.
If you think that judicial corporal punishment can no longer be inflicted in Britain today, you are wrong. Although it can no longer be imposed on free men, scenes like this are still regularly enacted in our prisons.
Between 1955 and 1962, there were thirty-seven sentences for mutiny or for assaults on prison officers. A typical sentence was fifteen strokes of the birch.
And what is good for the adult is considered even better for juveniles. Although there is no corporal punishment in Borstals, the swish of the cane is a familiar sound in our approved schools.
Headmasters may give boys and girls under fifteen up to three strokes on each hand at any time. And boys may also be beaten on the posterior -- not more than six strokes for those under fifteen and not more than eight for those over fifteen.
It is not only in penal establishments that the law can order a whipping. Anyone who takes his holiday in our offshore islands is liable to find himself at the wrong end of a birch rod if he is unwise enough to break the peace.
Trevor Large, for instance, a nineteen-year-old from Oldham, Lancashire, flew to the Isle of Man for a day's outing with the darts team. Somehow, he became involved in a pub fight. A bar supervisor was butted in the stomach and had two of his teeth knocked out.
Large, who pleaded not guilty to assault, was sentenced to six months jail -- and eight strokes of the birch.
Other places were the ordinary courts can still order birching are Jersey, Guernsey and Northern Ireland.
In recent years, those sentenced have ranged from three Ulster thugs who chloroformed and robbed an old woman (twelve strokes) to a fourteen-year-old Guernsey boy who broke into a shop (four strokes).
The Guernsey boy had been given six strokes only six months before for a previous offence. This is unfortunate for those who advocate an extension of corporal punishment on the mainland. They have argued that it deters people from committing -- or repeating -- crimes.
The Lord Chief Justice, Lord Parker, told the House of Lords: "The courts, as well as the government, owe a duty to the community to halt this crime wave. If they are to do so, they must have the necessary weapons of punishment."
But is corporal punishment a deterrent? All the available evidence suggests it is not.
The Criminal Record Office made a study of 1,845 criminals convicted of armed robbery or robbery with violence -- the only offences for which flogging has been imposed since 1861 -- between 1941 and 1948. Of these, 261 were sentenced to either the cat or birching.
So far from being deterred, those flogged afterwards committed proportionately more violent crimes than those who were not flogged. Both groups seemed to have equally bad records for minor and non-violent crimes committed after release.
By and large, enlightened opinion has come to accept that no purpose would be served in bringing back corporal punishment. Both Henry Brooke and his predecessor at the Home Office have declared themselves opposed to its reintroduction.
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