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Better of Two Evils

In a new book, a former Baltimore cop says corporal punishment is kinder than prison

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Peter Moskos


Peter Moskos doesn’t bullshit. He suffers excess verbiage and political correctness lightly—like a cop who has heard it all before, which, in fact, he is. He wears a working-class, straight-Baltimore attitude when it comes to intellectuals, liberal do-gooders, and conservative talking heads. Yeah, he writes books and he wants you to read them; and yeah, he is a tenured associate professor at the John Jay College of Criminal Justice at the City University of New York, but what he has to say isn’t what you’ve heard before.

Moskos is a former Baltimore City police officer. He patrolled the city from 1999 to 2001 when the annual murder rate hovered around 250 and annual arrests topped 100,000. He dedicated his first book—Cop in the Hood: My Year Policing Baltimore’s Eastern District (Princeton University Press)—published in 2008, to the nine Baltimore police officers who were killed in the line of duty between 1999 and 2007, just before the book was published. He ends the opening chapter with a deeply poignant remembrance of a colleague, Crystal Sheffield, to whom the book is also dedicated. Moskos went through the police academy with Sheffield, the first female police officer killed in the line of duty in Baltimore. In the book, Moskos describes his return to Baltimore for her funeral after leaving the force. He recalls standing “in the cold rain at attention in my civilian clothes with my uniformed fellow officers.”

You have to understand what it means for Moskos to be standing in the rain at the funeral of a Baltimore cop to get where his most recent book, 2011’s In Defense of Flogging (Basic Books), wants to take you. You have to consider how working midnights in the Eastern district clarifies and focuses the mind. At the end of Cop in the Hood, he writes: “One colleague said, ‘I’ve given up helping people. I tried that. Then I learned that things were really fucked up out there. You know, no one is going to believe you when you say how fucked up everything is.’ I said, ‘I knew things were fucked up. I just now realize that I don’t want to deal with it everyday.’”

But not dealing isn’t the same thing as escaping from hard questions about crime and punishment in places like Baltimore. For Moskos, not dealing meant giving up on being a grunt soldier in the American drug war with all its hypocrisies. It also meant a serious effort to find an alternative to a system that has locked up over 2 million citizens, more than anywhere else in the world, with little effect on the drug trade or public safety. Like many others writing about America’s prisons, Moskos sees perversity and travesty.

Unlike others, however, Moskos has an elegant, if unexpected, solution.

“I write in defense of flogging, something most people consider too radical for debate, not worthy of political discussion,” Moskos writes. “My defense of flogging—whipping, caning, lashing, call it what you will—is meant to be provocative but only because something extreme is needed to shatter the status quo. And that, ultimately, is my goal.”

For Moskos, those offended by the idea of a return to corporal punishment simply do not comprehend the scale, scope, and function of the current prison system. Neither liberals nor conservatives are able to see beyond the status quo: “If we really wanted to punish people with something worse than flogging, we could sentence drug offenders to join gangs and fear for their lives; we could punish child abusers to torture followed by death; we could force straight men to have semiconsensual prison gay sex,” he writes. “But we don’t because we are better than that. Or at least we like to think so. All these things already happen, but we just sweep them under the rug and look the other way.”

He asks the reader a basic question: Would you be willing to suffer the lash in exchange for not going to prison? And are you willing to deny that option to others? According to Moskos, what we’ve created with prison is the problem, and the political conversation about it isn’t getting us anywhere. In Defense of Flogging is the explosive result of his intellectual dissatisfaction with the conservative stories supporting prisons and the liberal counterarguments for reform. But the liberals get the worst of it.

“I am pissed off at reformers,” he says during a recent phone call from New York. “Good intentions only go so far.” In Flogging, Moskos traces the very origins of the penitentiary to the good intentions of reformers, and demonstrates how that narrow humanitarianism of locking someone in a cell for penitence came to monopolize our idea of punishment and got us where we are today. “The reformers got us into this mess and they are not getting us out.”

So Moskos was a little surprised when Mother Jones magazine named In Defense of Flogging a “Favorite Book of the Year” and he was pleased to be named one of Atlantic Monthly’s “Brave Thinkers of 2011.” “But I also thought I should be on The Rush Limbaugh Show,” Moskos says with a laugh. “I thought it should cross over [to] the many conservatives who actually read books and think. I mean, it’s a book about corporal punishment.”

In Defense of Flogging has more than a little tongue-in-cheek Swiftian Modest Proposal in it, but to emphasize that is to obscure Moskos’ moral seriousness as a writer and thinker trying to imagine a different world. “I saw [Martin] O’Malley once while he was mayor,” Moskos says. “And I remember saying, ‘You know you can’t arrest your way out of this problem.’ And he looked at me and said, ‘Why not?’ I said to myself, ‘He doesn’t quite get it.’” Moskos wants his readers to get it. Not just politicians and academics, but all of us who live in the shadow of the American prison. “What I am really trying to do is make people think,” he says.

Moskos was back in Baltimore in May. He came down from New York to eat steamed crabs with his former sergeant. “I’ve never lived or worked in any place like Baltimore,” he says. “It really is a kind of Dickens tale of two cities. It’s not that Baltimore’s parochial, but more like just very isolated. It’s a great city. . .but like in many American cities, in parts there is a level of poverty and despair that shouldn’t be tolerated in a civilized society.”

And Moskos is quick to point out that the problems Baltimore and America’s prison system have were not always thus. As regards the prison system, we can look to the past. “If we just got back to the levels of incarceration of the 1970s, then we’d be like the rest of the civilized world,” Moskos says. “Now to do that, we’d have to release like 85 percent of our prisoners. Most people look at that and say, ‘Jeez, we’re fucked.’ But we have to do something different.”

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