We could end prison overcrowding inside 30 days if we
overcame our humanist prejudices and applied some moral
How so? Bring back the lash as an "offender's choice only"
OK, this is a very nasty subject. But why not give some
categories of criminals the option of severe corporal
punishment, so that they can forgo imprisonment or get out
And in doing this, confess that inflicting pain for an hour
may be more humane than enforcing months or years in our now
broken, crowded, indecent jails.
United States criminologist Peter Moskos recently wrote a
provocative paper, In Defence of Flogging, suggesting that
were you or I given the option of the lash or jail, after
we'd thought about it, we'd likely choose the flogging.
The pain and humiliation would be extreme, but less
life-destroying than the loss of freedom in prison, with its
threats of criminality and debasement, and a fair chance of
being beaten up anyway. Plus the consequences of broken
marriages, wrecked careers and being socially ostracised.
Prof Moskos' land of the free now has 2.3 million people
incarcerated, not because of a new modern criminality, but
because of politically motivated harsher sentencing and the
US "war on drugs".
His point is that by allowing offenders the physical
punishment option, the ever-worsening crowding of prisons
would be relieved. Prof Moskos doesn't mean a headmaster's
six of the best.
Rather, corporal punishment of a scale where it may be about
right to substitute two strokes per year of a proposed
sentence. In New Zealand, our prison population has increased
70% since 1997.
Almost exactly 50% are there for traffic or property
offences. Less than 9% of our 8500 prisoners are inside for
crimes of violence. A quarter of any prisoner's compulsory
companions are gang members.
It's so crowded we binned 60 people in converted shipping
containers last year, which, if you'll excuse the hyperbole,
echoes convicts held in rotting shipping hulks in Charles
Dickens' England. I think we've given up on the pretence of
our jails being useful places to rehabilitate criminals.
The more jails strain our unwilling budgets, the more we turn
them into human garbage dumps - places where it is evil to
send many drugs, traffic and property offenders.
In May, Bill English called our prisons a "moral and fiscal
failure" when he stated no more prisons would be built under
his watch. He put their cost at $250,000 for the prison bed
and $90,000 a year for "board", of which less than $5 a day
is spent on food.
With imprisonment, we replace a taxpayer with a tax burden,
then add more costs such as family dependants on social
security. As in the US, the prison squeeze is because of the
drugs conflict, and populist political decisions on stricter
sentencing, such as the three strikes law.
For all but a fraction of civilisation, legal systems have
used three main punishments - loss of freedom, monetary
penalties and corporal punishment. But today, with our minds
chained by humanist sensitivities, we can't bring ourselves
to look at the physical option. We'd rather hide behind the
indirect brutality of jail.
Barbarism is something defined by its beholder, not its
committer. If a prisoner chooses the barbarity of the lash
over the barbarity of jail, is he a barbarian?
Of course not. Does society become barbaric by offering the
choice? I think no - there is a moral gulf between a
mandatory flogging and one chosen in place of jail.
Other substitutes for "hard jail", such as prison farms and
home sentences, are weak deterrents, and not easily managed.
But corporal punishment is flexible, cheap and simply
supervised. We can't pretend anything rehabilitating about
the lash, but it's less likely to lead people further astray
than jail school.
It's difficult to judge its deterrent strength. Modern
Singapore sentences offenders to up to 24 strokes of the
soaked rattan cane. It has a low crime rate, but also a high
incarceration level, simply because it's a place that
I suspect that if New Zealanders were polled on the "optional
lash", there may be more support than expected, particularly
from those who pressure for longer sentences. But any
politician or judge who pokes a head above the barricades on
this topic will be ridiculed as a redneck nutter.
Likewise any newspaper columnist. This is because the cruelty
of the lash is dramatic, unlike the unwitnessed cruelty of
Mention "the lash" and our reactions go off the scale as we
instinctively make associations with the sadism of Botany Bay
and the brutality of the lash in Nelson's navy, where a
thousand stroke punishment was not unheard of.
The lash is horrible but, in degrees of horror, is it really
too hard for us to admit many prisoners find time in jail
even more inhumane?Probably it is. But our society isn't good
at being honest about itself.
- John Lapsley is an Arrowtown writer.