Criminals today, neighbours tomorrow

Prison cell


Is prison for punishment or rehabilitation – and what’s the alternative?


Unlike many of the theorists illuminating the complexities of crime and punishment, Peter Moskos has first-hand experience. Moskos spent several years on the midnight shift as a Baltimore City police officer before departing for Harvard and earning a Ph.D. in sociology. Now, as a professor of criminal justice, he is attempting to the fill the gap between theory and practice.

His latest book, though, is a polemical treatise. In Defense of Flogging asserts that we should return to the days of the lash instead of the slammer. Why? Because prison is more brutal, more expensive, and no more effective than corporal punishment.

“Perhaps there is another way – neither incarceration nor flogging – that punishes the guilty, provides the convicted with a halfway decent chance of a future, expresses society’s disapproval, and satisfies the victim’s sense of justice. It’s possible, but I doubt it,” Moskos writes. Even if we don’t shut down prisons in favour of the whipping post, convicted criminals should at least, he reasons, be given a choice between the two.

Moskos isn’t blind to the futility of his argument. It isn’t so much intended to effect change as to make us think about prisons in a different way. “All the ‘prisons are bad’ books are not going to change a conservative nation,” Moskos tells me. “The whole purpose of writing In Defense of Flogging was to help frame this as a moral issue. America locks up two million people and we just think it’s normal.”

Imprisoning people, certainly to the extent that we do now, is an historical aberration. We may like to view the movement away from corporal punishment as a marker of social progress, but Moskos sees it as a descent into something much more damaging – for both the criminal and for society.

“It would be one thing to just take away time, but prison is also torturous.” This might be excused if it was shown to be an effective deterrent, but Moskos points to evidence that suggest the opposite to be true. “The longer you’re in prison, the more time you spend around other criminals. At some point, you just tip and become part of the prison culture.”

Then, after being separated from families, stripped of dignity, and subjected to abuse, convicted criminals are released back into a world that is unfamiliar and often uncaring. There are still people coming out of prison having never seen a mobile phone or used a computer. “They can’t function in society,” Moskos says. “There’s a problem with recidivism, but that’s a problem with society because we don’t know how to deal with it.”

“The lash may not set lives straight,” he writes in his book, “but it would at least give those who want to turn their lives around more of a fighting chance.” With flogging, he argues, they could maintain their social networks, keep their jobs – essentially, remain part of the social fabric, but with acute physical trauma instead of a protracted mental counterpart.

Australian journalist Hamish Macdonald travelled to Norway to investigate the Bastøy prison island for his show, The Truth Is… Bastøy, once an infamously brutal reformatory for juvenile delinquents, is now one of the country’s most progressive minimum-security prisons. It remains controversial, although now for its “luxurious” conditions – a “holiday camp” for over 100 serious criminals.

Bastoy Prison - Norway

Bastøy minimum security prison in Norway

A pod of island cottages, each with its own television and without constant supervision, might not match our image of punishment, but Norway also happens to have some of the lowest reoffending rates in the world.

This raises the question: is prison for punishment, or for rehabilitation?

“Within every society there’s a spectrum of views about what the purpose of the justice system is,” Macdonald says. “In different societies, different ends of that spectrum hold greater weight.”

Australia has a much smaller prison population than the US, and some success in rehabilitation, especially among juveniles. Still, there are problems with recidivism, and a tension in the rehabilitation vs. punishment debate.

“Naturally we tend towards sympathy with the victim, rightly so, but that can tend to blind us to the reality that these perpetrators will likely be back in the community,” says Macdonald. “That’s an issue we don’t really think about.”

In Australia, few prisoners receive a life sentence, and even fewer see a life sentence through. Criminals go into prison, and criminals come out. Almost all eventually re-join society, and that means what happens in between is crucial for the rest of us. It’s understandable but nonetheless unfortunate that recent local media coverage has converged on the tragic outliers, focussing discussion on small parts within a large and complex system and robbing us of the broader perspective needed on such issues.

“Restorative justice asks, ‘what can you do during the time in which someone is incarcerated to make them better citizens and less likely to commit another crime?’” says Macdonald. But this inevitably begs a secondary question: “Is that period of incarceration about justice for the victim, or about justice for society?”

While the two aren’t mutually exclusive, there is certainly something of a trade off to be made. Both Moskos and

Macdonald agree that we need to look closely at our prison system, and that maybe “getting softer on crime” – as difficult a proposition as it is –would be better for us all.

“If we are to improve crime rates in the longer term then turning criminals away from a life of crime is fundamental,” says Macdonald. “Prison or punishment in itself will not necessarily do that.”

“What punishment do we hope to give sending people to prison for two years that they wouldn’t learn in four months?” asks Moskos. Even so, he has a basic problem with such questions. “It’s crazy to me that they think this system can somehow be improved at the margins, and that the problem isn’t the basic concept. We’ve just got to stop throwing people in cages.”

Moskos has another idea that’s potentially even more dangerous than flogging, and almost certainly a harder sell: paying criminals.

“It takes anywhere from $30,000 to $100,000 a year to imprison someone. If the goal is to protect society then we could give prisoners half of that, because generally people with enough money don’t go out mugging people on the street.”

“It’s kind of rewarding the criminal,” he concedes, “but if the goal is to protect society, and if it would be cheaper to do, then we should look at it.”



Hamish Macdonald chairs the Festival of Dangerous Ideas panel, ‘Time To Get Soft On Crime,’ on Saturday November 2nd at 4.30pm, featuring Peter Moskos, David Simon, Erwin James and Christine Nixon.

Peter Moskos delivers his Festival of Dangerous Ideas talk, ‘In Defence Of Flogging,’ on Sunday November 3rd at 5.15pm.

Full program and tickets available here:


This piece originally appeared in the Sydney Morning Herald Festival of Dangerous Ideas supplement.