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Bloomberg.com, New York, 25 May 2011
Flogging Could Answer America's Prison Problem (Seriously): Books Review
By Craig Seligman
"In Defense of Flogging" isn't a joke, a satire or a thought experiment. Peter Moskos, a former Baltimore cop who's now a professor at John Jay College of Criminal Justice, seriously wants to reintroduce corporal punishment in the United States.
Don't laugh: He makes a convincing case. From the straightforward question he begins with -- "Given the choice between five years in prison and 10 brutal lashes, which would you choose?" -- he had my attention.
Moskos isn't a sadist or a fetishist. In fact, he finds flogging distasteful. (He describes the physical effects in graphic detail: "skin is literally ripped from the body," etc.)
But he's far more outraged by the American penal system, which incarcerates the largest total number (2.3 million) and the largest per capita proportion (750 per 100,000) of prisoners of any country in the world. When the U.S. has criticized China on human-rights issues, Beijing has had the satisfaction of pointing to these figures in response.
I doubt that even those of Moskos's readers most aghast at his ideas will try to argue that American prisons are anything other than dysfunctional. Moskos shows how the current system gradually replaced corporal punishment with the goal of rehabilitating wrongdoers.
Schools for Crime
But since it has long been evident that penitentiaries are little better than schools for crime, he compares the true believers in the "curative promises" of rehabilitationists with diehard communists.
However promising their ideas once seemed, "for modern reformers to maintain a utopian vision of incarceration that flies in the face of two centuries of real-world failure is inexcusable."
Flogging as punishment would be less disruptive to society than incarceration, since "from behind bars a prisoner can't be a father, hold a job, maintain a relationship or take care of elderly grandparents." It would also cost taxpayers far, far less.
Which is why what Moskos calls the Prison-Industrial Complex -- the "political confluence of various interest groups that benefit from the business of incarceration" -- would furiously oppose it. Prisons have become such a massive industry in the U.S. that downsizing them could mean thousands of jobs lost. But is that really a reason to keep building them?
Moskos offers two important qualifiers to his proposal. First, he's advocating corporal punishment "as an alternative to incarceration, not an addition to it." (Unfortunately, it's all too easy to imagine what might happen to this nuance in our punishment-happy culture.)
Second, he considers it essential that such punishment "only be done with the consent of the flogged. The status quo of incarceration is always an option."
"In Defense of Flogging" is one of the very few public- policy books I've encountered that goes past wringing its hands over a societal problem to offer a viable solution, by which I mean one with a prayer of being put into place because it has appeal across the political spectrum.
Conservatives could embrace corporal punishment as a real and serious punishment for crime (in a way they couldn't embrace, say, financial penalties or community service). Liberals could accept it as an option that gives wrongdoers a much better shot at a future than a prison sentence does.
And at just over 150 pages of clear, smart and highly readable prose, Moskos's sharp little volume has a potential audience far beyond the experts who dutifully slog through most tomes like this. It's the kind of item that could be stacked next to a bookstore's cash register. Think about it for a Fathers' Day gift.
So does my enthusiasm mean I'm ready to endorse flogging? Not quite. Penology is so far beyond my field of expertise that I want to see the enraged counterarguments first. I know one thing, though. Given the choice between 10 lashes and five years, I'd take the whip. Let the debate begin.
"In Defense of Flogging" is published by Basic (183 pages, $20).
(Craig Seligman is a critic for Muse, the arts and leisure section of Bloomberg News. The opinions expressed are his own.)
©2011 BLOOMBERG L.P. ALL RIGHTS RESERVED.
The Daily Beast, 27 May 2011
California Prisons Overcrowded: Is Flogging the Answer?
The Supreme Court upheld a ruling ordering California to release 46,000 prisoners in order to alleviate overcrowding. Mansfield Frazier, who has done time, on why flogging may be more humane than a decrepit prison.
By Mansfield Frazier
At first glace, the title of Peter Moskos' new book, In Defense of Flogging, strikes you as a barbaric hoax being perpetrated by some sort of right-wing ideologue or kook. In fact, it initially appears to be an idea so outrageous, so provocative, as to not even rate a second thought; something to immediately be dismissed out-of-hand. Indeed, how can anyone -- who considers themselves the least bit humane -- even consider such an outdated form of punishment as flogging, even for the most serious and monstrous of law breakers?
But Moskos, an assistant professor of Law, Police Science and Criminal Justice at New York's John Jay College of Criminal Justice, and a former Baltimore cop to boot, is painfully serious (pun intended). And the timing for his book could not be better, considering a recent Supreme Court decision that upheld a ruling ordering California to release about 46,000 inmates in an attempt to relieve its overcrowded prisons.
The wretched prison conditions cited in the Justice Anthony Kennedy's majority decision makes the notion of corporal punishment a bit more palatable. Indeed, maybe even quite a bit more palatable than serving time in one of the hellholes California's prisons have become.
Justice Kennedy cited compelling evidence from over two decades of litigation: mentally ill prisoners going untreated for up to a year; suicidal inmates held for 24 hours in phone booth-size cages without toilets; and waiting lists of 700 inmates for a single doctor. Prisoners housed in gyms converted into triple-bunked living quarters that breed disease, violence, and victimizing of guards and inmates alike. In 2006, a federal judge found that substandard prison health care was responsible for the death of one inmate a week in the state's prison system. "The medical and mental-health care provided by California's prisons falls below the standard of decency that inheres in the Eighth Amendment," which bans cruel and unusual punishment, said Kennedy. And the food is supposedly worse than the conditions of confinement.
In light of the foregoing, Moskos puts forth a straightforward question: Is flogging malefactors any more inhumane than locking them away under such brutal conditions -- often for relatively minor, nonviolent offenses? He's not mandating the lash, but suggesting that those convicted of a criminal offense be given an option. Indeed, if you were given a choice between 10 lashes and five years in a California prison, which would you choose? You'd survive the lash, but perhaps not the prison.
If we're capable of taking Moskos' idea as a serious option to incarceration, it could have profound consequences for a nation that incarcerates its citizens at a rate that's seven times as high as the other nations of the world. Clearly we have to find a way to reduce prison populations, and this just might be a logical one.
America, with 2.3 million people behind bars, has more prisoners than soldiers, Moskos writes. "Prisons do little but breed criminality and destroy family ties and job prospects... incarceration is long, torturous, and psychologically destructive." The lash, he posits, while admittedly brutal, "is a short burst of searing pain," but one that can "punish criminals, save money, spare families, and ensure that justice is served."
As state after state grapples with budget deficits that threaten to push them into insolvency, almost invariably cost-cutter's eyes focus on prisons, simply because they've proven to be financial rat holes, bottomless pits that suck up more tax dollars while offering little of value in return. Indeed, California, over the last decade, has built seven new prisons and not one new university.
Moskos writes that both ends of the political spectrum should look approvingly upon flogging as a substitute for prison. "If you're a conservative, flogging holds appeal as efficient, cheap, and old-fashioned punishment for wrongdoing... it's a get-tough approach... and nothing is tougher than the lash. If you're a liberal and your goal is to punish more humanely, then you must accept that the present system is an inhumane failure."
In Defense of Flogging forces the reader to confront issues surrounding incarceration that most Americans would prefer not to think about. While Moskos makes a compelling moral argument for allowing those convicted of crimes to be given a choice, he might have been better served if he had made it a financial argument instead. Most American taxpayers will willingly allow someone to be flogged into insensibility if it means they're going to save a few bucks. Just look at the jeopardy we knowingly place prison guards in with inhumane overcrowding.
Mansfield Frazier is a native Clevelander and former newspaper editor. His regular column can be seen on CoolCleveland.com. An avid gardener, he resides in the Hough neighborhood of Cleveland with his wife Brenda and their two dogs, Gypsy and Ginger.
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