Cheap, easy and better than jail school

We could end prison overcrowding inside 30 days if we overcame our humanist prejudices and applied some moral clarity.

How so? Bring back the lash as an "offender's choice only" punishment.

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 earlier?

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 disciplines severely.

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 jail.

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.