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Shaming Punishments

Historical Antecedents: Corporal Punishments And Imprisonment

The wave of shaming sanctions since the mid-1990s is not America's first experience with humiliation as a form of punishment. Indeed, the infliction of shame played a central role in the historical development of both corporal punishment and imprisonment.

Colonial Americans relied on a rich variety of corporal punishments, from the pillory to the whipping post to the ducking stool. Publicly inflicted in a highly ceremonial fashion, these sanctions were geared to inflict humiliation as much as physical pain. As Adam Hirsch has noted, "The sting of the lash and the contortions of the stocks were surely no balm, but even worse for community members were the piercing stares of neighbors who witnessed their disgrace and with whom they would continue to live and work" (p. 34).

Such punishments had largely fallen out of favor by the early nineteenth century and were overtaken by imprisonment as the dominant punishment for noncapital crimes. This shift was animated by two changes in social conditions. The first was the loosening of the tight communal bonds that had characterized colonial life. As American communities grew and became more impersonal, the disgrace of corporal punishment receded. Hirsch points out that "[t]he threat of a session on the pillory was less daunting when performed before persons with whom offenders were unacquainted, and with whom they need have no further personal contact" (p. 38).

The second change was the democratizing of American society. The Revolution unleashed a passion for equality that impelled Americans to root out all perceived vestiges of social hierarchy from within their institutions. Corporal punishment was targeted for reform because it was perceived to be distinctive of hierarchical relationships. The infliction of acute physical pain was the way that sovereigns disciplined their subjects, husbands their wives, parents their children, and masters their servants or slaves. As such, it rankled Americans' republican sensibilities for states to use this same mode of discipline to punish citizens, even the errant ones who committed crimes.

The advent of the prison responded to both of these changes. The dissipation of community life in early America was accompanied by growing devotion to individual liberty. Accordingly, the threat of liberty deprivation seemed a natural replacement for the threat of status deprivation formerly associated with corporal punishment. In addition, because imprisonment expressed what citizens of a republic shared—their liberty—rather than any settled social distinctions that set the punisher and the punished apart, imprisonment struck nineteenth-century Americans as more in keeping with the principles of republican self-government.

It would be simplistic, however, to view imprisonment as reflecting the complete dissipation of shame as an element of criminal punishment. Precisely because liberty was so intensely and universally valued, imprisonment was viewed by nineteenth-century Americans as an effective instrument for inducing shame even in a society of strangers. Early prisons were thus structured to maximize the public humiliation of offenders, who were "put . . . on display as if in a zoo" (Hindus, p. 101). It is more accurate, then, to see the shift from corporal punishment to imprisonment not as an unqualified repudiation of shame but rather as an adaptation of it to new social conditions.

Additional topics

Law Library - American Law and Legal InformationCrime and Criminal LawShaming Punishments - Historical Antecedents: Corporal Punishments And Imprisonment, Contemporary Impetus: The Search For An Expressively Appropriate Alternative Sanction