What would you choose if you were offered the choice between serving five years in prison and getting 10 Singapore-style lashes? I’d pick the lash. Wouldn’t you? What does that say?
It says that there’s something seriously wrong with the American prison system — a lot of things, actually.
For one, it’s horribly inhumane. Prisons are supposed to cure the criminally ill just as hospitals heal the physically ill. But as Charles Dickens noted when he toured an 18th-century prison, “I hold this slow and daily tampering with the mysteries of the brain to be immeasurably worse than any torture of the body.” Prison conditions haven’t improved much since Dickens’s time. Bunk beds stacked within an arm’s reach of each other fill cells and communal sleeping rooms. Although guards may act like they’re in charge, because of the sheer numbers, prisons are, in effect, run by prisoners. And without legal forms of settling disputes and conducting transactions, violence and criminality become the norm.
Our prison system is also remarkably expensive. We’re spending nearly $30,000 per prisoner per year, multiplied by 2.3 million prisoners. Disturbingly, America now has more people behind bars than China, and China has a billion more people. We have seven times more people behind bars than we did in 1970, but not seven times more criminals. Prisons do keep the truly dangerous away from us, and we should keep some people locked up. But honestly, there aren’t too many of them — certainly not magnitudes more than we had before 1970.
What has this massive level of incarceration accomplished? In the 1970s and 1980s our prison population went up by one million, and crime increased. In the 1990s our prison population went up by a second million, and crime went down. Prison has surprisingly little to do with the crime rate because incarceration does not deter crime. New York City decreased its prison population and crime went down in New York City more than anywhere else.
Our prison system is supposed to somehow be good for the soul. But being locked in a room with a bunch of criminals doesn’t make you a better person; it makes you a better criminal.
We need a form of punishment that is more humane, less expensive and less criminogenic than prison.
Let’s give criminals the choice of being flogged in lieu of incarceration. Anything to empty our prisons. Certainly it would save billions. Equally important, it might end our absurd prison-is-always-the-answer mentality. And if criminals agree to be flogged, it’s hard to argue that flogging is too cruel a punishment.
Of course, some might say that flogging isn’t harsh enough. While at least this gets past the facile and flawed position that prison is nothing but “three hots and a cot,” if we lock up people precisely because violent jails and overcrowded prisons are so unbelievably horrific, then perhaps we need to question our very humanity.
Is there a third way, something better than both flogging and prison? I hope so. But until we figure out what that is (and have the political fortitude to adopt it), let’s at least take the lesser of two evils.
Peter Moskos, the author of In Defense of Flogging and Cop in the Hood, is an assistant professor of law and police science at John Jay College of Criminal Justice and CUNY’s doctoral program in sociology. He also teaches at Laguardia Community College in Queens.