Public flogging: No better than public imprisonment

Jeff Jacoby writes a 1997 passage, “Bring Back Flogging” that public whipping is needed to stop people from becoming hardened criminals. Jacoby further argues that this punishment should replace imprisonment, which has become the punishment for those violating criminal laws in the United States for over 150 years. Through the ideas laid out in Amendments in the United States Constitution, ideas of societal commentators and others proves that the unsound imprisonment and flogging necessitates new types of punishment for wrongdoers.

Jacoby writes that “corporal punishment for criminals” has not been used on a large scale since the 1840s and now people are imprisoned in order to discipline wrongdoers in “a more enlightened, more humane way.” Even with this idea of good faith, Jacoby points out that almost every criminal offense results in prison, even for nonviolent crimes which results in a high incarceration rate and a failed criminal justice system. As a result “Crime is out of control…many states have gone on prison-building sprees [and]…nearly all convicted felons are released early – or not locked up at all.” This results in a high price of each criminal behind bars, over “$30,000 per inmate per year.” To counter this problem, Jacoby offers a solution: horsewhipping in public, which he says would be educational and would say money.  He goes even further, attacking arguments that would call it degrading and brutal, saying imprisonment is more brutal than flogging someone because in prison there is high “risk of being beaten, raped or murdered.”

In my view, Jacoby brings up a good point about the prison system and how it is brutal, but his solution is not much better. Prison reformer Dorethea Dix, even though she was writing about conditions in 1843, says something that is still relevant to Jacoby’s argument: “I have seen…insane persons confined within this Commonwealth in cages, closets, collars, stalls, pens; chained, naked, beaten with rods and lashed into obedience!” It seems that Jacoby wants to bring back some of these ideas, especially, the lashing of criminals into obedience. But, it is not even constitutional. The Fifth Amendment to the Constitution guarantees the right to “life, liberty and property” which shall not be taken away unless there is “due process of law.” The Eighth Amendment says that cruel or unusual punishments shall not be inflicted. I cannot see how flogging is not cruel or unusual, especially since it involves whipping. Even worse, Jacoby forgets that the Thirteenth Amendment allows slavery or involuntary servitude “as a punishment for a crime whereof the party shall have been duly convicted” which could result in wrongdoers becoming slave-like and getting whipped for their wrongful deeds.

Howard Zinn, in his book, A People’s History of the United States, notes the same as Jacoby that prison was chosen “to replace mutilation, hanging [and] exile.” Still, Zinn goes farther and says that they were intended to make people repent to their wrongdoing, but these caused people to die and go into deep isolation. In addition, prisons were used to break a criminal’s spirit, to reform them through hard labor. Still, Jacoby’s method of public flogging fails to recognize that the prison system reflects the American system with “stark life differences between the rich and poor…racism…use of victims against one another…lack of resources of the underclass to speak out [and]…endless [prison] “reforms” that changed little.” This echoes the messages in Bob Dylan’s song titled ‘George Jackson’: “Sometimes I think this whole world / Is one big prison yard / Some of us are prisoners / The rest of us are guards” With public flogging, these realities would likely not change: poverty would still mean it was more likely one would be charged with a crime than if one was a rich person.

Jacoby’s replacement of imprisonment by public flogging does little to address the economic, racial and social inequalities in American society and it could cause mass obedience by the citizenry, making government more able to manipulate the public, leading the way to the creation of a full-fledged Orwellian state. The statement of French blogger, Alexandra Giroux, has a solution that Jacoby failed to find: the considering of “new initiatives in punishment” of wrongdoers in society.

But what are these new initiatives of punishment? The Green Party of the United States in their 2010 platform proposes “approaches…that build hope, responsibility and a sense of belonging” that make “prisons…the sentence of last resort, reserved for violent criminals [not] those convicted of non-violent offenses.” For them, those that commit nonviolent crimes “should be handled by alternative, community-based programs including halfway houses, work-furlough, community service, electronic monitoring, restitution, and rehabilitation programs.” The Socialist Party USA takes a similar approach. They call for “the expansion of community release programs…other alternatives to prisons…abolition of prison labor for profit…and the [ending]…of prison labor to perform state services.” Forbes Magazine gets a bit more specific in different alternatives: residential drug-treatment programs, faith-based rehabilitation programs, paying for staying in a better prison, having “outreach teams to interact with juveniles in danger of landing in prison,” “letting corporate criminals teach in low-income schools,” ignition interlocks on cars, wearing an electronic ankle cuff to limit movement, chemical castration, restorative justice programs, abolish prisons, have government invest in the needs of the people and shame people by putting their names on billboards. eHow, a common question site proposes that probation, fines, community service work, diversion programs and restitution are simple alternatives to incarceration. The Prisoners’ Justice Day Committee, based in Canada, has similar ideas. The committee writes that the “excessive reliance on prisons” can be reduced by using alternatives “such as fines, restitution…programs which place more power in the hands of those directly affected by the prison experience [and other]…public solutions.”

In conclusion, the current amount of people incarcerated in America is becoming unsustainable and alternatives that are not cruel and unusual must be considered in order to address the problem of wrongdoers in society.


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