Prison reform

This post is based on a presentation I gave as part of an undergraduate course on Modern Political Philosophy.

Crime and punishment is a subject which should be taken into account by Space colonists. If one thing is certain, there will be crime and criminals in any future Space settlement. Therefore we should consider how to deal with issues of criminal law. However, in this post we will not pursue what act should be considered as crime, only that we believe that the harm principle should be used to construe crimes [1].

An important question is whether we should use imprisonment as a punishment. Although the modern prisons system has been invented in the 18th century as a more civilized punishment, it has been controversial ever since. The prison reform movement is in fact as old as the institution itself.

American professor of criminal justice Peter Moskos argues [2]:

For most of the past two centuries, at least in so-called civilized societies, the ideal of punishment has been replaced by the hope of rehabilitation. The American penitentiary system was invented to replace punishment with “cure.” Prisons were built around the noble ideas of rehabilitation. In society, at least in liberal society, we’re supposed to be above punishment, as if punishment were somehow beneath us. The fact that prisons proved both inhumane and miserably ineffective did little to deter the utopian enthusiasm of those reformers who wished to abolish punishment.

Incarceration, for adults as well as children, does little but make people more criminal. Alas, so successful were the “progressive” reformers of the past two centuries that today we don’t have a system designed for punishment. Certainly released prisoners need help with life—jobs, housing, health care—but what they don’t need is a failed concept of “rehabilitation.” Prisons today have all but abandoned rehabilitative ideals—which isn’t such a bad thing if one sees the notion as nothing more than paternalistic hogwash. All that is left is punishment, and we certainly could punish in a way that is much cheaper, honest, and even more humane.

As an alternative Moskos make the following proposal in his book In defense of flogging [3]:

I propose we give convicts the choice of the lash at the rate of two lashes per year of incarceration. One cannot reasonably argue that merely offering this choice is somehow cruel, especially when the status quo of incarceration remains an option. Prison means losing a part of your life and everything you care for. Compared with this, flogging is just a few very painful strokes on the backside. And it’s over in a few minutes. Often, and often very quickly, those who said flogging is too cruel to even consider suddenly say that flogging isn’t cruel enough. Personally, I believe that literally ripping skin from the human body is cruel. Even Singapore limits the lash to 24 strokes out of concern for the criminal’s survival. Now, flogging may be too harsh, or it may be too soft, but it really can’t be both.


Because not only does incarceration not “cure” criminality, in many ways it makes it worse. From behind bars, prisoners can’t be parents, hold jobs, maintain relationships, or take care of their elders. Their spouse suffers. Their children suffer. And because of this, in the long run, we all suffer. Because one stint in prison so often leads to another, millions have come to alternate between incarceration and freedom while their families and communities suffer the economic, social, and political consequences of their absence.

The benefits of optional flogging as an alternative punishment for prison are clear, both for the criminal as for society. The life of the convict is not destroyed as is the case with years of imprisonment, but is still punished for his crimes. For society the main benefit is the reduced costs of administering justice.

Of course, Peter Moskos realizes that some criminals should be locked up, although this is not for the sake of punishment upon the criminal, but in order to protect society against the most dangerous criminals. Moskos further argues that optional flogging can and should be used in combination with restorative justice.

Video interviews with Peter Moskos:

In Defense Of Flogging As Alternative To Prison (CNN, 4.18 min)

In Defense of Flogging: Controversy Over Prisons and Punishment (PBS Newshour, 6.15 min)


Review of Peter Moskos’ In defense of flogging by The Economist

Interview with Peter Moskos in Salon


[1] We see the harm principle as a rule of thumb rather than as an absolute rule. We acknowledge that this principle will not work in some circumstances, however we believe it is appropriate as a general rule.

[2] Peter Moskos, In defense of flogging in The Chronicle Review, April 24, 2011. (Visited on April 6, 2013).

[3] See previous note.

3 thoughts on “Prison reform”

  1. I’m in favor of abolishing jails and prisons as means of punishment. It’s not just convicted criminals who are punished. Taxpayers are punished too. I’m opposed to warehousing convicted criminals at the expense of taxpayers. Some prisons do force prisoners to do some kind of labor to help pay for the cost of keeping them there, so the burden on taxpayers is not as great.

    I do not like it that some prisoners of some kinds of minimum security prisons for white-collar crimes are actually living better than some low income people. I do mean better food, better health care, better clothing, and better housing.

    I very much like the idea of banishment, like what Robert A. Heinlein presented in Coventry, a short story within his Revolt in 2100 novel. I also like what was presented in the movie Escape from New York. All convicted criminals would be dropped into an isolated location, such as an island, from which no escape is possible. No need for guards inside. Airdrops by charities and government for minimal food, supplies, medicine, shelter, etc. A convicted criminal may chose to be executed or be banished for life. They can learn to grow their own food and catch fish. Set up their own society within the isolated area.

    The only acceptable reason for holding a suspect in jail is if there is evidence that the suspect will continue to be a threat to others, especially a threat to harm or kill someone. Otherwise, holding them for trial is not acceptable. Bail should be abolished. We have the means to force them to wear tracking devices, while awaiting trial, so they can easily be found if they don’t show up.

    I favor the idea of bringing back public flogging. As is, most convicted criminals lose much more than just their freedom for whatever length of time. Most of them immediately suffer the loss of a job, and property such as cars and homes. So there is that additional punishment, which might be more excessive than any jail time, the additional punishment not fitting the crime. So the option would be to use sick leave or vacation time allowed by an employer to go take a flogging, and then return to work, so that there are no additional losses. Get it over with and then get on with life. I’d modify the idea as a choice between flogging and paying a fine, rather than a choice between flogging and time in jail or prison. It should for some cases be a public flogging, at a public location and live on TV. Let humiliation be part of the punishment. Commercials on TV can help cover the cost. People like to watch others beat the living daylights out of each other, such as in boxing as a sport, so this really would not be too different. This method of punishment can become entertainment, selling many tickets. Then punishment becomes a business. Halftime entertainment during the football game. By making it visible, it is more likely to discourage others from engaging in the crimes that may result in a flogging.

    1. I like the idea of banishment or penal transportation as alternative for prison. In space we can easily arrange this by reserving a small space habitat for this particular purpose. In fact this would be a small town, where they could do whatever they wish (as long as it’s legal) except leave. The near vacuum of outer space will also eliminate the risk of escape from the penal colony.

      Only dangerous criminals should be held in pretrial detention, for other suspects electronic monitoring would suffice. The idea of bail is now outdated, it was a good idea back in 19th century but now we have better alternatives.

      1. This kind of ties in with one of my ideas for how convicted criminals sent to prison can have the option to be useful to NASA and others right now for what might be referred to as isolation and survival experiments. Create environments to duplicate what life would be like on a long voyage between planets, and becoming stranded on another planet, or a member of an isolated colony. It would be observed by doctors, psychologists, scientists, etc. It could be a reality TV show with commercials to help cover the cost. Use an isolated island for simulating a colony. Build what looks like a star ship to put them in for voyages between planets, but of course grounded without propulsion. Assuming means of artificial gravity and blocking the dangerous radiation in space on an actual voyage.

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