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Mansfield Frazier

A new book on corporal punishment is provocative and timely

June 14, 2011 09:34:37 am
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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Indeed, how can anyone—who considers themselves the least bit humane—even consider such an outdated form of punishment as flogging, even for the most serious and monstrous of law breakers?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 his timing 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 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. Other abuses included housing prisoners 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, as Moskos writes. "Prisons do little but breed criminality and destroy family ties and job prospects… incarceration is long, torturous, and psychologically destructive,” he continues.

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-cutters’ eyes focus on prisons. 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, a regular blogger for The Crime Report, is a native Clevelander who serves as the executive director of Neighborhood Solutions, Inc., a non-profit organization that focuses on myriad issues of importance to the urban community. A published author, he served as editor at a number of Cleveland weeklies before semi-retiring and changing over to Internet journalism in 2005. His column can currently be seen weekly on CoolCleveland.com and The Cleveland Leader. He also occasionally contributes to The Daily Beast. Frazier is the co-publisher of Reentry Advocate, a magazine that currently goes into all Ohio prisons, select prisons in the State of Michigan, and the Federal Bureau of Prisons. He welcomes reader comments.

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