Whip It Good

With In Defense of Flogging, Peter Moskos ponders a return to the lash

His distaste for institutional reformers is such that at one point he bizarrely compares calling for less incarceration to “asking for comfier seats on the train to Auschwitz: It sort of misses the big picture.”

The big picture, as Moskos sees it, starts not in the 1960s, which he touches on just briefly over, but with Robert Martinson’s seminal 1974 Public Interest essay, “What Works?” The article, based on a 1,400-page review by Martinson and two other researchers of 231 previous studies of prisons, was commissioned and then shelved by New York out of fear that its grim conclusions could cost the state millions of dollars in federal funds for building and maintaining prisons. In it, Martinson reached the famous conclusion that “[w]ith few and isolated exceptions, the rehabilitative efforts that have been reported so far have had no appreciable effect on recidivism.” (Italics in the original.)

Martinson, who Moskos notes killed himself in 1980, expected his findings to help bring an end to the prison system. Instead, his article, quickly nicknamed “Nothing Works,” captured an era’s pessimism as policy makers conceded the helplessness of prison reform without giving up on the prisons themselves.


In Defense of Flogging
By Peter Moskos
Basic Books, 192 pp., $20

Moskos, who holds up Martinson as a model, saying he “knew damn well that prisons do not work,” has nonetheless tapped into the same vein of benighted fatalism, offering a solution—corporal punishment in place of prison—that has no chance of implementation, rather than any path toward achievable reforms.

What might change the equation for more practical-minded reformers is the economic downturn, which has transformed prisons from a growth industry to a costly burden on states, a development Moskos notes only in passing, calling it “a thin silver lining to cloudy economic times.”

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