11 February 2005

An Evolution of Torture

Pointing to the trend of longer prison sentences, some scholars argue that America is on a track of ever increasing levels of harshness in its criminal policies. Many feel that rehabilitation programs have fallen by the wayside, while America pursues a policy of merciless vengeance. In Harsh Punishment, James Whitman concludes that American punishment is cruel compared to other modern industrialized countries.

On the up side, our punishments look like a slap on the wrist compared to those just a few hundred years ago. In Colonial Williamsburg the punishment for stealing food was a good old fashioned hanging. For the crime of failure to attend church in Virginia between 1611 and 1662, the “criminal” received a punishment of deprivation of food for one day. If the naughty parishioner was a repeat offender, the punishment for the second time was a whipping. And for those lost souls who missed church three times, a punishment of 6 months of rowing in the colony’s galleys was likely to keep them praying.

Additionally, the horrific punishment of being drawn and quartered was thankfully abolished in 1870. Although this punishment was usually only reserved for treason, the fact that it ever existed puts a dark stain on humanity. The full punishment of drawing and quartering was a four step process:
First the individual was dragged on a hurdle to the place on execution.
Then they were hanged by the neck and removed from the noose just before death.
Then occurred probably the worst part of the punishment; they were disemboweled and their genitalia and entrails were burned before their eyes.
Finally, they were beheaded and their body was divided into four parts which were often put on public display.

Looking at historical punishments, makes one wonder how modern punishments will be viewed in a few hundred years. Will future Americans gasp in horror as they read about the atrocities committed in our day? Or will they laugh, considering our punishments and our reasoning trivial and silly?


Anonymous said...

the olde american version of drawing & quartering sounds mild compared to what was done in brasil. there, the offender had each of his limbs chained to a horse, and the four horses were urged away from each other... and the offender torn limb from limb.


Yasmeen Abdullah said...

Ouch... I hope that's not practiced anymore.

Capt. Nemo said...

No discussion we be complete without the introduction from discipline and punish by foucault...I think this was the punishment for regicide in royal france.


I was suprised as a 1L to find that crim law's reasoning for punishment was still fully based on 17th theory: revenge, removal from society, and reforming the prisoner.

I took some abuse for suggesting the reason for punishment was to aggrandize the power of the state at the expense of the individual(one of the ideas advanced in foucault's book).

Sniffy said...

I'm surprised to see Foucault mentioned in a legal blog posting...

In a similar vein, I believe the current US punishment practices are an internalization of vindicitive justice, with reformation of character a loose justification. One only need look to all the jokes made about prison rape to see than many feel that sexual torture is a reasonable penalty for e.g., selling proscribed plants for recreational use. The important part is that it happens quietly; out of sight, out of mind, "they deserved it". Always "they".

The debates about "extraordinary rendition", Abu Ghraib, etc. are similar; I believe a large minority of the country is outraged that photos came to light, rather than at the actual torture, which they quietly endorse. The Rush-style "no worse than frat hazing" excuses and "war is hell, what do you expect" justifications, at least, tend to point that way.

Anonymous said...

It's hard to imagine anyone looking at our contemporary system and arguing with a straight face that it is too harsh or will be someday equated to drawing and quartering (which by the way was never a common American practice). To the contrary, we have so restricted use of the death penalty-- not willingly, since it's the anti-democratic, oligarchic Supremes that has forced us to limit it-- that one day people will wonder why we allowed horrible crimes to go inadequately punished (think OJ [wife-murderer], think Malvo [mass-murderer/racist hate criminal], think Chris Simmons [throwing bound, conscious victim into river]; think all the other little dears freshly sprung from death row).