A whipping? Emily Fisher has never attended one, and never meant to. But a man is being whipped because he spat on her, and the community expects Emily to witness justice. But it is not just the whipped man who is “Taking a beating” in chapter 21 of Prophecies and Penalties. And the results leave Emily wondering just what justice she will find among the Children of the New Revelation.
Whippings have gone out of style in this country. We see it as a cruel and barbarous practice. There was a major controversy in 1994 when an American citizen was sentenced by a Singaporean court to be caned, a related punishment. And yet it was a common enough punishment in the early history of the United States, and, at least according to Wikipedia, the last judicial flogging was only in 1952 in Delaware. No, they didn’t whip a corporation; instead, it was a wife beater, a case where the punishment may well have fit the crime.
One of the reasons public punishments such as whipping or the pillory dropped out of fashion in this country was the decline in community identity as people moved around a great deal, towns grew larger, and communities became more socially stratified. Since none of these things happened to the Children of the New Revelation, it is not surprising they retained whipping as a punishment.
Not that our prison system is exactly a humane replacement for whipping. Many of our prisons are overcrowded, leave inmates vulnerable to aggressive gangs of other inmates, and may actually increase the chance that an inmate will commit crimes again when released. Our problems with prisons can be traced back to our uncertainty over whether to use them for rehabilitation or punishment, and our desire to do either or both on the cheap.
The problem of prisons got some attention back in the 1960s and 1970s. There were numerous prison riots, and a great deal of talk about what reforms were needed. Joan Baez once actually performed a song about razing prisons to the ground at Sing Sing Prison in 1972. But as the prisons learned more sophisticated techniques to prevent riots, people’s interest in reforming prisons died out.
Today, the United States has the largest prison system in the world, and incarcerates more of its citizens than any other country. But there is little debate among the general public about the prison system as such. (The issues of racial incarceration rates and the use of private companies to run prisons do get discussed from time to time.) We don’t seem to be interested in asking the important questions. Does our prison system make us any safer? Does it protect us from criminals? Is it humane? Is there something better we could do?