IN DEFENSE OF FLOGGING
is a former Baltimore City police officer and author of Cop
in the Hood (Princeton University Press, 2008). He is currently
an assistant professor of Law, Police Science and Criminal Justice
Administration at John Jay College of Criminal Justice, and
teaches at The City University of New York's doctoral program
in sociology. His latest book is In
Defense of Flogging.
idea came from a dinner in New Orleans. I had cold-called (or
whatever the email equivalent is) a writer and his wife because
I was a fan of his work and thought we had much in common. They
were gracious enough to arrange a meal and treat me, without
much justification, as a professional equal more than a stalker.
The conversation turned to corporal punishment in public schools.
They were amazed not that such a peculiarity existed in a city
ripe with oddities, but that such illegal punishments were administered
at the urging of and with the full consent of the students'
I drolly replied, but I wasn't shocked. If I'd learned one thing
as a police officer patrolling a poor neighbourhood, it was
the working- and lower class populations' great fondness for
corporal punishment. No punishment is as easy or seemingly satisfying
as a physical beating. I learned this not because I beat people,
but because the good citizens I swore to serve and protect often
urged me to do so. It wasn't hard for me to resist (I liked
my job, and besides, I wasn't raised that way), but I agreed
that many of the disrespectful hoodlums deserved a beating.
Why? Because, as the old-school thinking goes, when people do
wrong, they deserve to be punished.
most of the past two centuries, at least in so-called civilized
societies, the ideal of punishment has been replaced by the
hope of rehabilitation. The American penitentiary system was
invented to replace punishment with "cure." Prisons
were built around the noble ideas of rehabilitation. In society,
at least in liberal society, we're supposed to be above punishment,
as if punishment were somehow beneath us. The fact that prisons
proved both inhumane and miserably ineffective did little to
deter the utopian enthusiasm of those reformers who wished to
for adults as well as children, does little but make people
more criminal. Alas, so successful were the progressive reformers
of the past two centuries that today we don't have a system
designed for punishment. Certainly released prisoners need help
with life -- jobs, housing, health care -- but what they don't
need is a failed concept of rehabilitation. Prisons today have
all but abandoned rehabilitative ideals -- which isn't such
a bad thing if one sees the notion as nothing more than paternalistic
hogwash. All that is left is punishment, and we certainly could
punish in a way that is much cheaper, honest and even more humane.
We could flog.
that New Orleans dinner, as the wine bottles emptied, somebody
ruminated, "with consent of the flogged." I said,
"in defense of flogging." We paused. If nothing else,
all of us agreed it was a hell of a title!
home, I mentioned 'in defense of flogging' to my editor and
his eyes lit up. He told me in no uncertain terms that he was
going to publish a book by that name, and I was going to write
it. This was 2007, still more than a year before the publication
of my first book. And while most young academics would love
to have a second book project before they finished their first,
I had one great fear: the title. Could it not be Why Prison?
or even In Defense of Flogging? But my editor stuck
to his guns (and noted that question marks in titles were bad
I started writing In Defense of Flogging, I wasn't
yet persuaded as to the book's basic premise. I, too, was opposed
to flogging. It is barbaric, retrograde and ugly. But as I researched,
wrote, and thought, I convinced myself of the moral justness
of my defense. Still, I dared not utter the four words in professional
company until after I earned tenure. Is not publishing a provocatively
titled intellectual book what academic freedom is all about?
In Defense of Flogging is more about the horrors of
our prison-industrial complex than an ode to flogging. But I
do defend flogging as the best way to jump-start the prison
debate and reach beyond the liberal choir. Generally those who
wish to lessen the suffering of prisoners get too readily dismissed
as bleeding hearts or soft on criminals. All the while, the
public's legitimate demand for punishment has created, because
we lack alternatives, the biggest prison boom in the history
of the world. Prison reformers -- the same movement, it should
be noted, that brought us prisons in the first place -- have
preached with barely controlled anger and rational passion about
the horrors of incarceration. And to what end? Something needs
my defense of flogging is more thought experiment than policy
proposal. I do not expect to see flogging reinstated any time
soon. And deep down, I wouldn't want to see it. And yet, in
the course of writing what is, at its core, a quaintly retro
abolish-prison book, I've come to see the benefits of wrapping
a liberal argument in a conservative facade. If the notion of
tying people to a rack and caning them on their behinds à
la Singapore disturbs you, if it takes contemplating whipping
to wake you up and to see prison for what it is, so be it. The
passive moral high ground has gotten us nowhere.
opening gambit of the book is surprisingly simple: If you were
sentenced to five years in prison but had the option of receiving
lashes instead, what would you choose? You would probably pick
flogging. Wouldn't we all?
we give convicts the choice of the lash at the rate of two lashes
per year of incarceration. One cannot reasonably argue that
merely offering this choice is somehow cruel, especially when
the status quo of incarceration remains an option. Prison means
losing a part of your life and everything you care for. Compared
with this, flogging is just a few very painful strokes on the
backside. And it's over in a few minutes. Often, and often very
quickly, those who said flogging is too cruel to even consider
suddenly say that flogging isn't cruel enough. Personally, I
believe that literally ripping skin from the human body is cruel.
Even Singapore limits the lash to 24 strokes out of concern
for the criminal's survival. Now, flogging may be too harsh,
or it may be too soft, but it really can't be both.
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. We are in denial
about the brutality of the uniquely American invention of mass
incarceration. In 1970, before the war on drugs and a plethora
of get-tough laws increased sentence lengths and the number
of nonviolent offenders in prison, 338,000 Americans were incarcerated.
There was even hope that prisons would simply fade into the
dustbin of history. That didn't happen.
1970 to 1990, crime rose while we locked up a million more people.
Since then we've locked up another million and crime has gone
down. In truth there is very little correlation between incarceration
and the crime rate. Is there something so special about that
second million behind bars? Were they the only ones who were
real criminals? Did we simply get it wrong with the first 1.3
million we locked up? If so, should we let them out?
now has more prisoners, 2.3 million, than any other country
in the world. Ever. Our rate of incarceration is roughly seven
times that of Canada or any Western European country. Stalin,
at the height of the Soviet gulag, had fewer prisoners than
America does now (although admittedly the chances of living
through American incarceration are quite a bit higher). 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.
2.3-million prisoners doesn't sound like a lot, let me put this
number in perspective. It's more than the total number of American
military personnel -- Army, Navy, Air Force, Marines, Coast
Guard, Reserves, and National Guard. Even the army of correctional
officers needed to guard 2.3-million prisoners outnumbers the
U.S. Marines. If we condensed our nationwide penal system into
a single city, it would be the fourth largest city in America,
with the population of Baltimore, Boston and San Francisco combined.
I was a police officer in Baltimore, I don't think anyone I
arrested hadn't been arrested before. Even the juveniles I arrested
all had records. Because not only does incarceration not cure
criminality, in many ways it makes it worse. From behind bars,
prisoners can't be parents, hold jobs, maintain relationships
or take care of their elders. Their spouse suffers. Their children
suffer. And because of this, in the long run, we all suffer.
Because one stint in prison so often leads to another, millions
have come to alternate between incarceration and freedom while
their families and communities suffer the economic, social and
political consequences of their absence.
the past few decades we've lost the concept of justice in a
free society. Historically, even though great efforts were made
to keep outsiders and the undeserving poor off public welfare
rolls, society's undesirables -- the destitute, the disabled,
the insane and of course criminals -- were still considered
part of the community. The proverbial village idiot may have
been mocked, beat up and abused, but there was no doubt he was
the village's idiot. Some combination of religious charity,
public duty and family obligation provided (certainly not always
adequately) for society's least wanted. Exile was a punishment
of last resort, and a severe one at that. To be banished from
the community was in some ways the ultimate punishment. And
prisons, whether or not this was our intention, brought back
banishment and exile, effectively creating 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.
being, as a contemporary observer aptly described Newgate Prison,
New York's first, "unseen from the world," prisons
severed the essential link between a community and punishment.
Public punishment and shame became isolation and containment.
Without being visible, convicts went from being part of us,
the greater community, to a more foreign ‘them.’
Now we simply wait for them -- the troubled, the unproductive,
the unlucky -- to break the law. And then we hold them for months
and years, again and again, until they age out of violent crime
or die. All this because we've taken a traditional punishment
such as flogging out of the arsenal. We've run out of choices,
choices desperately needed if we're to have any hope of reducing
our incarceration rate by 85 percent, back in line with the
rest of free world, back to a level we used to have.
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?
of the World Unite