Counterpoint to 'Are We Using Our Prisons Properly?'


The United States leads the world in public incarceration rates. This is an undeniable fact. I cannot in good conscience argue that the system does not need to be changed, nor can I argue that the current prison system is not an enormous drain on public resources and our tax dollars.

However, there are some proposed solutions which should not be considered, nor pondered however briefly. A return to corporal punishment means a return to a darker age in our collective history, not to mention a return to a world in which human rights were not half as enshrined in policy and principle as they are today. As world leader whose very constitution bans “unusual punishment” and has for hundreds of years, we should not allow ourselves to regress to considering violence as a method of correction.

Even if we discount the American constitution’s relatively broad wording, we cannot discount our other obligations: the United Nations defines torture in Article 1 of their Convention Against Torture as “Any act by which severe pain or suffering, whether physical or mental… punishing him for an act he or a third person has committed or is suspected of having committed” – and the United States, as a signatory of that treaty, is bound to fulfill its obligations in that regard.

If we are punishing those who have committed victimless crimes, or minor felonies that still perhaps merit prison time under our current system, is it really morally better to punish them with corporal violence? The purpose, ostensibly, of our justice system is to rehabilitate as much, or perhaps more than it is to punish or isolate. A return to corporal harm as a method of justice would mean a total denial of this principle of rehabilitation because all other positive motives would be dwarfed under the sting of a lash.

When prisons focus on rehabilitation, recidivism rates decline. And yet corporal punishment in particular and whipping specifically is an act of dominance, an act which humiliates and scars the recipient. It is an act that will only encourage convicted criminals to hate the system that committed such violence against them. The scars that cannot easily be erased are not the physical ones – those can be corrected, but the mental scars will heal far less easily.

Furthermore, a system of appeals does exist within the American justice system, meaning that corporal punishment would be delayed potentially by years while the appeals process is followed. Thus either incarceration would necessarily follow for some time regardless, limiting any reduction on the burden on the prison system, or many innocent people could potentially be condemned to an act which can quite easily be defined as torture, an act of cruelty which no amount of money can compensate for.