Flogging Prisoners–Better Than the Lousy System We've Got?


Unlock your mother's basement, put on a pair of "outside" clothes, walk down to the bankrupt chain bookstore, and let's DO this!

That's the provocative thesis of criminologist Peter Moskos's new book, titled In Defense of Flogging. Over at CNN's In the Arena blog, Moskos explains why he thinks whipping people is better than living with the Drug War status quo:

The Supreme Court has affirmed a federal order telling California to reduce its overflowing prison population, a situation the majority said "falls below the standard of decency." California now has to figure out how to reduce the population by more than 30,000 prisoners. From your point of view, why does the prison system in the U.S. continue to fail?

Prisons fail because they don't do what they were designed to do: cure criminals. And as long as we insist on fighting an idiotic "war on drugs," nothing is going to better. […]

So California now says they're not going to release prisoners who are a danger to society. But if they're not a danger to society, why are they behind bars in the first place? If we just want to punish people for breaking the law, there are better—and cheaper—ways to do so.

In your new book, you are proposing that convicted prisoners should be offered a choice between a standard prison sentence and a set number of lashes? Are you serious? Do you think a criminal would choose being whipped?

I'm deadly serious. Given the choice between five years and ten lashes, wouldn't you choose the lash? What does that say about prison? And if flogging were so bad, where's the harm in offering it as a choice?

Of course some people are too dangerous to release, but these people are kept behind bars simply because we're afraid of them. But for most criminals, those we just want to punish, flogging is a more honest. It's also a lot cheaper. Simply to bring our prison population down to levels we had until the 1970s, we'd have to release 85 percent of our prisoners. How are we going to do that unless we end the war on drugs or have alternative forms of punishment?

Ironically, once people hear my idea, often they say that flogging isn't harsh enough. It's good to move beyond the facile position that flogging is too cruel to consider, but if you think flogging isn't harsh enough—that we need to keep people locked up for years precisely because prison is so unbelievable horrible—then you may be a truly evil person.

Moskos wrote a piece on drug-arrest incentives in our July special issue on the criminal justice system (pictured), which has begun landing in subscribers' mailboxes already. Don't subscribe to the magazine? Here's a link; do it. Though even then it will be too late for this particular issue, so get thee to a newsstand or bookstore, and reward good journalism (and most importantly, yourself).

I'll be speaking about the issue, and Moskos' proposal, beginning at 9 AM eastern time (otherwise known as NOW!) on The Pat Campbell Show, KFAQ 1170 AM Tulsa. Listen live at this link. UPDATE: Here's the podcast!

NEXT: Big Trouble in Little Hoover

Editor's Note: We invite comments and request that they be civil and on-topic. We do not moderate or assume any responsibility for comments, which are owned by the readers who post them. Comments do not represent the views of or Reason Foundation. We reserve the right to delete any comment for any reason at any time. Report abuses.

  1. Of course some people are too dangerous to release, but these people are kept behind bars simply because we’re afraid of them.

    Fairness demands that we should offer those people the choice of flogging just like any other. And when they choose to be whipped, after the flogging we should still keep them behind bars, the chumps.

    1. 1000 lashes. if you survive you’re free to go! but first walk over and grab your personal belongings that we conveniently left in the back of that prison cell over there..

  2. Hell, let’s bring back the stocks, and the Rack, and all the other, oh, wait, something about ‘cruel and unusual’? Nevermind.

    1. Cruel and unusual my ass.

      Most people that call it that today don’t have a clue about what was meant by that statement.

      If it doesn’t hurt, it’s not much of a punishment.

      1. Indeed, in the olden days disemboweling was considered cruel and unusual; today, having a prison with just the basic DirecTV package is defined likewise.

        1. Hey man, basic cable is really light on content in the afternoons. What are they supposed to do!?!? Idiot.


    2. I don’t consider it cruel. Just, expedient, and likely effective, but not cruel. As for unusual, sure it’s unusual, cause we don’t do it. If we did, it would cease to be unusual.

    3. You’re assuming prison isn’t or can’t be cruel and unusual. I say, in cases where corporal punishment might be desirable, let the the convict have the option of taking a prison sentence of appropriate length instead; you can hardly call it cruel if it the convicted believed it preferable to a prison sentence (or, at a minimum, you’ve underestimated the cruelty of prison).

      Note that any sentence is cruel, on the basis of applying it to an innocent person. The concept of cruelty should account for proportionality and should not exclude punitive measures.

  3. I have often thought that flogging should be used for people convicted of a whole host of offenses (drunk driving w/no serious bodily harm, simple assault, speeding more than 50 MPH above posted speed limit, and [a with some trepidation] dead beat dads so on) rather than fines / probation / jail.

    We would punishing crime without mixing people who really need to be separated from society with people who we believe need to be punished, but are otherwise safe for society).

    And just so we are clear, a punishment needs to be a bit cruel or unusual or it isn’t punishment.

  4. “Given the choice between five years and ten lashes, wouldn’t you choose the lash?”

    Are we talking white-collar resort prison or federal pound me in the ass prison?

    1. Let’s say you had children you would rather see grow up. Miss five years of their lives, or get some scars on your back?

  5. How about writing about how flogging works in places like Singapore. Does it do the job of teaching them not to do it again?

    1. I can think of one kid who will never key a car again (in Singapore anyway).

      1. That was caning, not flogging with a whip. I was in Singapore at the time and asked to see a caning – no luck. Only males from 16 – 50 were caned, across the back of the thigh. Usually drawing blood and leaving scars. Would be a good option here.

  6. I’ll take the lash, alex.

  7. I know it won’t happen any time in our near future, but I find flogging to be much preferable to short prison sentences for a few reasons.

    Flogging is less disruptive to productive life than months in prison.

    Flogging seems like it would be more effective deterrent.

    Flogging is less expensive.

    On the other side, prison is a broken system for all reasons except removing individuals from society.

    For some people, short prison sentences are even earned intentionally to avoid winter. In other words, society provides food and shelter to those who earned it, by crimes committed against us. If people like that were flogged instead, there would be no incentive to commit those small crimes, and there would be strong incentive not to.

    1. “Flogging is less expensive.”

      Wait to you see the Floggers union pension plan!

    2. I can’t believe someone could convince me that flogging was a good idea, but there you go. Corporal punishment makes sense because no one really wants to get whipped.

  8. How many cops you think would sign up for lash duty? “Take a number, buddy.” Hell, it would probably be written in their next labor contract. Each employee is entitled to no less than two weeks of lashing duty.

    And yes, Dunphy, I know, present company excepted.

  9. For the life of me, I cannot understand why we haven’t adopted flogging and/or public humiliation as penalties for ethics violations in the House and Senate. Shouldn’t Charlie Rangel have gotten a few lashes or some rotten eggs thrown at him in a public square over his misdeeds as opposed to admonishment from the House well? Ditto Maxine Waters? Bob Packwood?

    Oh, now I remember why. We let them write their own rules and [cough]punish[cough] themselves as they see fit.

  10. Whatever happened to the libertarian concept of restitution??

    1. Well, since about 90% of the laws on the books lack a victim, where’s the restitution gonna go?

      I think this applies with the current # of laws on the books. SLD applies here, am I right?

      1. “Well, since about 90% of the laws on the books lack a victim”

        You miss the point of these laws.
        What you call victimless crimes are crimes against the State.
        By following the law you show fidelity to the State.
        By submitting to and obeying those who pass down the laws, you show that you can be trusted with power.

        When you disobey you insult those with power. Restitution is payment to those in power, for they are the victim of your crime.

  11. Prison only teaches people how to live in prison. It certainly does not make people into good citizens. It turns them into people who can survive in the company of rapists and murderers.

    I fail to see how society benefits from teaching people how to survive in prison and then letting them back out into regular society.

    Bring back the stocks, whipping post and gallows.

    Let justice be swift, painful and inexpensive.

  12. I agree 100%. In the ghetto going to prison increases your status, but criminal punishment should never do that.

    Best thing to do is flog criminals in their own neighborhoods with all their peeps watching them cry like little bitches. Try to get some respect on the street after that episode, Tyrone.

  13. So it would be just like the British Navy, minus the rum and sodomy?

    Talk about cruel and unusual.

    1. Well… We can make them optional. I wouldn’t let them get too drunk before the lash to feel it.

    2. Beat me to it, although I was going to ask if they’d have to provide their own rum and sodomy.

    3. Beat me to it, although I was going to ask if they’d have to provide their own rum and sodomy.

      1. Fucking fuck. Squirrels or touchscreen? Or both? You be the judge.

  14. Servants of tyranny could be put in stocks and we could provide the public with rotten tomatoes to hurl at them. Blood is on the hands of all who support current soft on public safety, out-of-control, historically ignorant drug policy; a tyranny in the guise of good intentions.

    Murderers and other violent predators roam free, while we police nonviolent adult social, medicinal and religious drug use. Get tough on violent crime! Please sign this international petition for a better drug policy.…..520&v=9209

  15. Prisons fail because they don’t do what they were designed to do: cure criminals.

    I agree with the majority of Mosko’s statements, save the above. Prisons were NOT designed to “cure criminals”, they were designed to punish a person for the crime they committed. If the person learned from the incarceration, then all the better, but the primary concept of depriving one of their freedom is punishment.

    Even if the idea of modern prisons are for “treating criminality”, where is the evidence of successful programs?

    1. At various times prisons have been designed to cure criminals, hence names like “correctional institution” and “penitentiary.” Of course it hasn’t been so successful, and in many cases the supposedly nicer treatment has been even more horrible. (Cf. Panaopticon or CS Lewis’s comment that “Of all tyrannies a tyranny sincerely exercised for the good of its victims may be the most oppressive.” or on punishment more generally.)

    2. Are you sure? While prisons have always existed, I thought the modern emphasis on incarceration as the primary mechanism for dealing with crime was a result of the progressive emphasis on rehabilitation and redemption (and reprogramming).

    3. Ray, you’re just historically incorrect.

      The prison as penitentiary – a place with individual cells, where prisoners spent their time when they weren’t working or eating or going to chapel – was invented in Pennsylvania in the 19th century with the specific intention of reforming prisoners on a religious-order model.

      Before that, “gaol” meant going to the galleys, or to a chain gang, or something like that.

      1. But very few people were confined for long before the 19th C. The cases you hear about are people who were too important to be killed, too dangerous (to someone) to be let go, or confined like Rapunzel for their protection. Practically speaking, prison didn’t exist before the penitentiary system.

  16. “Masochist goes on crime spree. Film at eleven.”

  17. This would lead to people choosing the less time consuming punishment, the physical one, for economic or other reasons. The torture would become the de facto punishment, something I’m sure most sane libertarians have a problem with.

    1. Can you explain why “most sane libertarians” would prefer that people not be able to choose an option “for economic or other reasons” if they prefer it? If you think flogging is so bad, why make people suffer something that they think is even worse? You’re an even worse torturer.

      He’s partially doing a Swiftian argument here, of course, but the other point remains.

    2. Yes, we should force people to take the punishment they feel is more harmful to themselves, because the other option harms our delicate sensibilities.

  18. I’ve made the same argument about waterboarding versus SuperMax prisons.

  19. The author is right on one score:

    Prisons were originally designed to “cure” prisoners. They were set up on the model of the monastery. That is why they are called “pentitent”-iaries in the first place.

    If prisons are not actually functioning as monastic retreats where prisoners meditate and decide not to commit crimes any more, then their entire reason for being failed and we are keeping them open despite that failure.

    If our reason(s) for doing that are:

    1) We need a way to punish criminals

    2) We want criminals to be physically separated from the rest of society

    – there are probably cheaper and better ways to do that. I definitely think we might want to consider bringing exile back, if we don’t want to get involved in physical punishment. Put a giant fence around some empty part of one of the Dakotas and push people through the gate as their sentence. The Romans made it work.

    We would never consider that, though, because we’re used to having prisons now. And even if they are a complete failure relative to the conceptualization of their original design, that doesn’t matter because we never, ever discard an institution just because it’s a failure. We just keep it and try to muddle through, because that’s the kind of people we are.

    1. “We would never consider that, though, because we’re used to having prisons now.”

      No, it’s just that our presidents keep having daughters, and none of them wants to risk it.

      1. I think it’s also because people wouldn’t think it was a severe enough punishment to exile someone.

        It’s like when they do those exposes about Latin American prisons where the prisoners set up bars and internet cafes and shit because they’ve taken over the inside.

        Even though they’re still in the prison and therefore society is still “protected” from them, there is universal outrage because, damn it, they’re just not being degraded enough by the experience.

  20. I’ve thought this way for years.

    I don’t see the benefit of confining people except those acutely agitated. I might stretch that in a few cases to as much as 3 months’ cooling off, but that’s about it. Beyond that, confining people for the safety of others is a losing proposition. If someone is judged to be a long term physical danger to others, that person should be permanently incapacitated in as cheap a manner as possible, as by amputation or spinal injury.

    1. You lie – we cut out your tongue.
      You steal – we cut off your hand.
      You rape – we cut off your willy.

      1. Before death came, the liars were made to feast upon the hands of the thieves, and the thieves were made to ingest the tongues of their liar brothers, and we praised the Master Builder for his judgements.

  21. Moskos is great! Phrases like “I’m deadly serious,” should be used far more often throughout social science.

    Too many thinkers are so afraid of being outside of the norm that they never have the hope of seeing the potential for radically alternative but obviously possible and preferable institutional arrangements.

    You do not have to offer an alternative to incarceration in order to criticize it. In fact, insisting that debates conform to the structure – status quo critique and alternative policy fix – is precisely the source of our inability to recognize alternative institutional arrangements because it presumes that such policy fixes are achievable and effective from our current public policy system.

    Most major social theorists from Marx and Drukheim to Weber, Smith and Mill were all at times ardent critics of prisons and incarceration and often expressed doubts that such practices would stand the test of time. Renowned prison historian Norval Morris thought similarly in his Future of Imprisonment in 1977, and Michael Tonry collects comments from leading criminal justice experts in his similarly entitled collection of 2006. In his, The Problem of Punishment (2008) David Boonin explains that there is a deep philosophical problem with presuming a social role of calculating and producing criminal punishments that remains unaddressed by current criminal justice practices.

    In other words, the classical liberal perspective of political economy where government action and public policy are constrained by a constitution of liberty is not only a legitimate perspective in contemporary discourse, but we are in desperate need of this under appreciated point of view. When in doubt opt for human freedom.

    English Jurist William Blackstone coined the adage, “[b]etter that ten guilty persons escape than that one innocent suffer.” The war on drugs is an inevitable by product of governmental growth in the American criminal justice system. As such it should be recognized as sound evidence to support Blackstone’s philosophical claim. The state is more likely doing more harm than good with prison practices today. Fixing this problem is not a matter of redirecting state efforts to better solve social problems. Moving forward is a matter of keeping governments from causing more harm.

    I am deadly serious…

  22. I am not interested in beating my gums about methods of punishment or penitence until:

    (1)Courtroom power is returned to judge and jury by eliminating mandatory minimum sentencing and

    (2) The Controlled Substances Act is repealed.

    (3) Cherished legal traditions lost to the drug war since 1971 are restored.

    (4) Drug addiction is treated as the medical issue that it is.

    1. If I got whipped for smoking weed, I could sign up for a medical marijuana card to help me with the pain! Problem solved.

  23. This is why I think that you are all figments of my imagination. I’ve just now been reading “Starship Troopers,” and the last part I read was the part where DuBois argues in favor of corporal punishment…

    Obviously reality is a construct of my own mind…

  24. “Prisons fail because they don’t do what they were designed to do: cure criminals.”

    Prisons: people used to think they could alter DNA.


  25. Why not just return to slavery? Then there wouldn’t be any opposition to flogging as lashing, whipping, whatever it was called, was common and acceptable. That’s what it’s all about anyhow, the control of non-white populations in this country.
    By the way, the punishment of being in prison is loss of freedom, not physical abuse. I’m so glad those of you who favor flogging are so pure and guiltless.

  26. Sign up today!

    One of the ways I make money online is by searching through Swagbucks. How does Swagbucks work? Swagbucks is a free search engine. You sign up for a Swagbucks account, start searching, and win swagbucks that you can trade for cool things like Amazon gift certificates, Paypal money, and you can even donate your swagbucks to plant a tree! When you search, you’ll see ads up at the top (just like other search engines) and basically they are giving you a cut of the advertising dollars they earn.

    How I use swagbucks is like this: I make it a point to do a few searches everyday until I win some Swagbucks. The amount varies each time, but every time I win it makes me happy. They add up! Once you hit an amount that you want to cash in, you can check the Swag Store and trade in the bucks for prizes. It’s pretty cool. I like that it’s free and you don’t have to do much to get the Swagbucks.

    When you sign up, I would love it you would use my referral link! I earn Swagbucks from the referrals. Then, have all your friends sign up under you!


Please to post comments

Comments are closed.