Solitary Confinement or the Whip? - OZY | A Modern Media Company

Solitary Confinement or the Whip?

Solitary Confinement or the Whip?

By Meghan Walsh


Because invisible scars run deeper than visible ones. 

By Meghan Walsh

If you were convicted of burglary, which sentence would you chose: 10 years in prison, or one finger chopped off? I’m guessing most would sacrifice the appendage. Hell, you might even offer up two of them. 

It’s odd, then, that corporal punishment clearly offends our sense of justice, that we climb onto lofty pedestals to denounce as barbaric governments that sentence lashings. At the same time, we mete out decades-long prison terms with little compunction and use solitary confinement as a kind of universal disciplinary measure. Here’s a thought: As reformers prune the edges of an American justice system built on false notions of humaneness, our time and outcomes might benefit more if we just started over — and, in the meantime, went back to floggings on the courthouse lawn.

The reasons are many. Most visible scars heal more quickly than invisible ones. Physical punishment is less expensive and time-consuming than incarceration. And it’s well past time we dispense with the notion that imprisonment can rehabilitate. “People still pretend that prison is good for you,” says Peter Moskos, a professor at John Jay College of Criminal Justice, author of In Defense of Flogging and a former Baltimore police officer. “But if we turned back the clock, I don’t think we’d use the penitentiary model.”

The 18th-century liberal reformers who envisioned the carceral structure we have now abhorred physical cruelty. But they didn’t much consider the prospect of psychological cruelty. Despite the best intentions, men like Jeremy Bentham, who designed the panopticon, didn’t have the foresight to picture the soul-crushing apparatus they were building. To this day, the U.S. seems unable to measure spiritual torture or to empathize with those who have been subjected to it. “Detention is still profoundly cruel, just in ways we have a harder time getting our heads around,” says Jason Vick, a political science Ph.D. candidate at UC Irvine and author of “Putting Cruelty First: Liberal Penal Reform and the Rise of the Carceral State.” 

To be sure, there has been some progress in recognizing the psychological detriments of detention. Lawmakers in Colorado, Illinois and Rhode Island are limiting or aiming to limit use of solitary confinement. There is a real debate over whether the death penalty is any crueler than a life sentence without possibility of parole. But we still have a long way to go, and a hodgepodge of efforts is not the way to get there. 

Instead, we should go back to first principles and figure out what we think punishment should do: deter crime, rehabilitate criminals, protect society or exact revenge? In recent years, the Old Testament’s “an eye for an eye” seems to be winning out over the New Testament’s “go, and sin no more.” What’s more, we’ve never fully abandoned our desire for corporal punishment: The U.S. is one of the few industrial countries that still relies on the death penalty, and physical reprimands continue to be commonplace in child-rearing. Rather than bury it, we might as well embrace that which is carnal in us. Or at least make society face the pain it inflicts.

Not everyone can be given a good caning and released back into society. Murderers, rapists and terrorists are too dangerous and must be isolated. But of the 2.2 million behind bars, that subset is a vast minority. In the case of the others, at least give them the choice: the skin or the self?

Sign up for the weekly newsletter!

Related Stories