A fair price to pay

Before you join the chorus of protest, says John Vorhaus, just hear out the arguments in favour of bringing back corporal punishment

Like his predecessor, Home Secretary Jack Straw is currently looking to the US for ideas about law and order. Americans in jail now number more than 1.5 million, so if this is the road we are intending to go down our prison building programme looks set to grow at a rate which is unlikely to amuse the Treasury.

And we are already going down this road: Richard Tilt, director general of the Prison Service, has recently estimated that the prison population will reach 70,000 next year; requiring 24 new prisons.

But there is a cheaper alternative: corporal punishment. If Straw likes to think of himself as a humanitarian, then this option is deserving of his attention — not least because “cheaper” includes not only the financial cost but also the human cost of punishment.

Surprising though it may seem, flogging people maybe less offensive to their dignity and less damaging to their welfare than sending them to prison. I can hear the cries of protest as I write. But, please, hear me out first.

In 1994, an 18-year-old American student, Michael Fay, was flogged in Singapore. With a doctor present to ensure he didn’t faint or bite his tongue, his spread-eagled body was tied to a rack while he received four strokes of the cane. There was an international outcry at this Singapore version of criminal justice: it was denounced as barbaric and degrading, and not something any civilised nation should even begin to contemplate. These are understandable sentiments, but they may not be a reliable guide for penal policy.

What does corporal punishment have going for it? For a start, it doesn’t take long, and dependants are relatively unscathed.

If, on the other hand, we force people apart for any length of time – and imprisonment often does this – then there is a risk of causing serious damage to their relationships. And let’s not forget the impact of the loss of income for the partners and children of prisoners. Whatever their anguish or distress, those who love or depend upon victims of corporal punishment will not have to suffer the penury or grief that so often accompanies the imposition of a prison sentence.

Corporal punishment can be calibrated precisely; we can have a pretty good idea how much pain is going to be inflicted. But it is a great deal more difficult to control what happens to people when they are sent to jail.

Prisons are supervised by large numbers of prison officers, and inhabited by even larger numbers of prisoners: in a volatile environment that is often simmering with aggression and frustration, who knows how high is the incidence of intimidation and violence?

You say you couldn’t sanction a state institution characterised by violence and aggression? But we already have institutions in which violence and aggression are common – namely, the prison system in England and Wales.

Men and women in these prisons are on occasions subjected to brutal beatings, assaults, intimidation and even rape. The violence and aggression of prison only seems less because those of us who have not experienced prison remain blind to what goes on within their walls. You ask what sort of example judicial corporal punishment will set to the general public? But corporal punishment can be inflicted away from the public gaze, with only a medical officer and the official charged with administering the punishment in attendance. Corporal punishment does not have to be a public spectacle.

Perhaps the gravest objection to corporal punishment is that it is deemed to be degrading But is it any more degrading than imprisonment? Skewed sensibilities are at work here, and prisoners are the victims of our distorted judgements.

In the case of corporal punishment, we witness the cane brought down upon a helpless victim, we see him wince, we hear his screams. The suffering is immediate and unmistakable. The suffering in prison is less obvious, but it is no less real or painful for that. Imprisonment can produce acute mental and emotional suffering, physical deterioration and the erosion of cognitive and social skills. This all takes place behind prison Walls, out of earshot, far from our gaze; and the anguish of men and women at night in their cells is often a solitary suffering that only becomes public when the anguish leads to the not infrequent tragedy of suicide.

The cost of keeping someone in prison is in excess of £500 a week. If corporal punishment costs less, and if it also deprives offenders of less of their life and liberty, causing less suffering to their dependants, why is it no longer on the political agenda?