People hate on the United States a bunch, but we’re still number one when it comes to putting people in jail. The US has the highest incarceration rate in the world, even higher than China, which has a billion more people and, we’re told, an oppressive government. Peter Moskos has a modest proposal to solve this problem: Instead of locking people up, beat them with a cane. He wrote a book on the topic called In Defense of Flogging that’s half thought experiment and half serious policy suggestion. The idea is that a convict could choose whether to spend, say, six years in prison, or take 12 lashes on his ass. In the book—which is both fascinating and simply written— he talks about the history of prisons and the sheer stupidity of our current system, but the most interesting thing is that flogging could totally work. It’s mean enough to be a punishment (you’ll probably have scars from it), but it won’t destroy your life the way long a prison sentence would. Recently, I talked to Peter over a few beers and I think we solved the US’s incarceration problem.
VICE: Tell me the summary of the book you’ve been giving everyone who asks you about it.
Peter Moskos: Prisons suck. The book could have been called Why Prison?, but then no one would read it. By framing the debate from a flogging perspective, you can talk about how bad prisons are. Most people, at least on the liberal side, think flogging is cruel and barbaric. Then you give them the choice between that and prison and they’re like, “Oh, I’d pick flogging.” No one wants to go to prison because people don’t want to be locked in a cage. At some level, prison is a very bizarre form of punishment.
When I told people about the idea of replacing prison with flogging, they were worried that flogging would let people off too easily.
Good god, I hope we haven’t reached the point where flogging is too soft.
It depends on the crime. If you lash someone for selling weed or coke, everyone’s fine with that. But when you talk about murder…
Murder’s strange in that it has a low level of recidivism. Usually you kill someone because you want to kill that person, and you’re not as much of a threat [to society] as say a rapist or a pedophile. I do argue that some people need to be locked up, but it’s so few compared to who we have behind bars.
There is a lot of anti prison literature out there—
Yeah, and it hasn’t done shit! That’s the problem. The anti prison people have been talking for 40 years, and all the while we’ve built up the prison industrial complex.
You come down pretty hard on left-wing prison reformers in the book.
They refuse to acknowledge how damn conservative America is. We need something radical, and something that has an element of punishment. That’s the problem with the anti prison people, they don’t want to punish people—or at least they come off that way. It’s all about rehabilitation for them. Even if we could completely reform prisoners in an instant, that’s not quite justice. They did something bad, they need to be punished.
You also talked about how prisons in America started out as a way to “reform” criminals, which you say is pretty much impossible.
If there is rehabilitation, it has to be separated from incarceration, because there’s no worse environment for rehab than prison. I mean, if you have problems that caused you to commit your crimes, you’re going to go to prison and get better? I hope the book helps people stop pretending that convicts leave prison better than they went in, because that’s never happened. What happens is they end up back in prison. That’s why prisons fail, because they don’t cure the criminal.
Flogging probably doesn’t either, but at least it wouldn’t pretend to.
Often I’m asked, “Does flogging work?” And not to sound like Bill Clinton, but it depends on what you mean by “work.” My usual answer is that it works because it’s not prison. It doesn’t fuck people up as much, and it’s a hell of a lot cheaper. It’s absurd that we spend billions of dollars on something that makes people more likely to commit crime.
What about other alternatives to prison? I was thinking about the stocks.
That’s not in the book because I wanted to keep it short, but I’m not opposed to stocks. It would be a good litmus test, because if the community doesn’t throw rotten tomatoes at the person in the stocks and shame them, maybe the law is wrong.
Speaking of alternatives, you note that the hated-by-liberals Arizona Sheriff Joe Arpaio should be praised for at least trying new things, like chain gangs.
He fails at the standards he sets. He’s not deterring crime, and what he does doesn’t work. But why are liberals so opposed to chain gangs? I know the answer: It makes them think of slavery. So liberals are more concerned with their squeamishness than the prisoners? Prisoners want to be on chain gangs because it’s not prison. It’s a desired assignment. I think chain gangs are good because it forces us to think, “Wow, look at that chain gang! Nineteen out of 20 of them are black!” There’s so much of this out of sight, out of mind attitude.
Can you see any problems with flogging?
There is a weakness to my argument—someone could mug you, get flogged, and then mug you on the way home.
Or if you really wanted to kill somebody…
And you failed? [laughs]
Yeah, you fail, get flogged, and you’re like, “I still hate them, so I better kill them now.”
That is a problem with flogging. But if the alternative is prison, we have to accept the fact that we’re going to lock up everyone forever, and we can’t do that.