After they finished eating, the four Americans got into the SUV and Thura drove them a short distance through the jungle until they came to a compound surrounded by a high double fence topped with some vicious-looking barbed wire. They pulled up at the gate. The sign, in English and Trabbian said “Department of Justice: Mongha Female Correctional Facility.” A female guard came out and exchanged a few words with Thura. “She says we must turn over any cellphones, tablets, cameras and such, as no photography or recording is permitted Everything will be returned as we leave.” The women all got out of the vehicle, as did Thura. The visitors dug in their pockets, producing their phones, which they deposited in the basket proffered by the guard. That task accomplished, they got back into the SUV. The guard opened the gate and instructed Thura on how to find the Warden’s office. The route proceeded through a complex filled with a number of huts similar to the ones at their camp until they arrived at a larger modern building. Standing in front to greet them was a woman of medium height and build, close in age to Susan, dressed in a police-style uniform with numerous highly polished brass buttons and ribbons.
“Welcome to Mongha Female Punishment Center,” she said in fluent, barely-accented English as they exited the car, “I am Noba, Warden of this facility. I understand that you have questions about the administration of justice in our country. I hope we can make clear to you the fairness and wisdom of our system. Please come inside.”
She led the party into the air-conditioned building and into a small conference room with a table and some chairs. “Be seated, please,” the Warden said. Gesturing towards a pitcher of ice water with some lemon slices floating in it and some glasses she said, “Please have something to drink. The procedure takes place outside and it is quite hot, isn’t it?” The guests all happily helped themselves, as the Warden continued, “Since you are not familiar with our country, I will explain what you are about to witness. The two offenders who will be punished today are females aged 20 and 21. They are students at the local university who decided that it would be fun to smoke some marijuana. Unfortunately for them, they set off the smoke alarms and the administration discovered them and called the police. They were charged with possession of drugs, which is a serious offense in Trabbia. They were entitled to a full trial if they wanted one, but, since the evidence against them was very clear, they pled guilty. They were sentenced to receive 8 strokes of the cane and were brought here from court yesterday. Upon arrival, they were strip-searched and given uniforms and spent last night in one of the huts in our camp. The night here allows for any pain medication that they might have taken on the outside to pass from their bodies. Right now, they are being examined by the doctor to ensure that they are fit to receive their punishment. Once he pronounces them fit, they will be taken to the caning area and their court-ordered punishment will be administered. I would be happy to answer any questions you might have.”
For a moment, there was an awkward silence. Although the Americans had felt free to express their outrage at the brutality of Trabbian justice in the confines of their camp, they felt a bit intimidated to do so in front of this commanding woman inside a prison facility. Finally, Priya summoned the courage to ask a question. “Isn’t a caning rather a severe punishment for smoking a joint?”
Warden Noba, thought a moment before replying. “I have been educated in the West. I have a degree from the University of California at Irvine. I understand that sort of behavior is tolerated there, even though it might be illegal. But we have found that tolerating small violations of the law produces a climate where more serious crimes can flourish. I believe that some in the West share this opinion-the ‘broken window’ theory as it is called.”
“But why caning? Why not a fine or community service or even a short prison sentence?” Jennifer asked.
“Fines don’t hit the rich and the poor equally. With students such as these, their parents would probably pay it anyway, so they would not learn anything. In Trabbia, we believe that community service is everyone’s obligation, so we do not consider it a punishment for criminals. As for prison, I think it is quite inappropriate for young non-violent offenders to spend time locked up with violent career criminals. All that does is teach them the wrong ways. Besides, prison is expensive and, while we are making progress, we are still not a rich country. The great advantage of corporal punishment is that the offenders are returned to society after a few days and can get on with their lives.”
Susan, always the professor, wanted some hard data. “What is the rate at which those who receive a caning sentence re-offend?” she asked.
“I’m glad you asked,” Noba responded. “We believe that is the most important factor in any criminal punishment. Does it prevent re-offending? And for caning, the answer is most assuredly that it does. The rate of re-offense in the following 5 years for those who are caned is below 10%.” Noba looked at Jennifer. “The rates for those who get fines or prison or community service are over 50%.”
“I know that some other countries have caning, but only for men. Yet in Trabbia you also cane women. Why is that?” Sarah asked.
“Another excellent question,” responded the Warden. “This was much debated when the laws were passed to institute corporal punishment. Some argued that women were less able to bear the pain. That is simply not so; after all, it is women who give birth, not men. We have several staff members who have also worked at male institutions and they find much individual variation in how people react to pain, but no difference between the sexes. Some argued that it is unseemly for women to be naked in front of men; perhaps, but there are women present sometimes when men are caned. Anyway, embarrassment and shame are a vital component of the punishment. For me, it comes down to a simple question of fairness. If I commit a crime that a man would be caned for, then I should be caned too.”
At that point there was a knock at the door. A guard entered and said a few words to the Warden in Trabbian.
The Warden turned to us and said, “The doctor has cleared the offenders for punishment, so if you would please follow me, we can perhaps see why caning is such an effective deterrent to crime.” She led the way out of the building and through the camp to a covered breezeway running parallel to a whitewashed wall. Noba guided the visitors along the breezeway and through a door in the wall. On the other side was a dirt-floored parade ground about the size and shape of a tennis court, surrounded by high walls on all four sides. Several guards, both male and female, were moving busily through the area. Towards one end, was a most curious apparatus, to which the Warden led the visiting party.
“This is our caning stand,” she explained, pointing at the four solid wood posts, about as tall as a person, forming a square about two feet on each side. The Warden grasped one of the posts and shook it to show how firmly it was anchored in the ground. She continued, “On the two front posts, you will notice, down near ground level, leather straps with buckles firmly attached to the posts. These are used to secure the offender’s ankles to the structure. Up here at waist level is a padded bar, with a padded belt that is attached around their hips to protect their kidneys and hold their torso in place. The offender bends over the bar and reaches their hands over to the bar across the far side which has two straps used to secure the offender’s wrists. It is important that the offender be secured very firmly, because the cane causes severe pain and the natural bodily reaction is to try to move to avoid the next stroke, which cannot be permitted.”
The Warden motioned to a very muscular looking man, wearing a black T-shirt and dark-blue sweat pants, who came over to the visitors carrying a stick. The Warden continued, “This is the cane used to administer the strokes. It is made of rattan, which grows in this area and is approximately four feet long and about as thick as my index finger, wrapped with cloth at the thicker end where the caner holds it. Prior to use, the bottom third is soaked overnight in water so that it is very supple, almost like a leather whip. That makes it very effective at transferring the power from the caner’s arm to the offender’s flesh.” Priya shuddered at the off-hand way the Warden described the brutal torture that would soon be inflicted on students much like her.
Noba exchanged some words with the caner. He bent the cane and showed how supple it was. “Go ahead; you can hold it.” He passed it to Jennifer, who grasped the cloth covered end. “See for yourself how it bends.” Jennifer bent it until it made a letter C. “Would you like to try swinging it?” Warden Noba asked. Jennifer looked reluctant. “Go ahead, there is a practice target.” She pointed at a pillow tied to one of the uprights at waist height, which had what looked like human buttocks drawn on it in marker. Jennifer walked over to it and took a swing, hitting the target rather softly. Each of the other visitors took a turn, with similar indifferent results.
The Warden took the rattan and handed it back to the muscular man. “Now let’s stand back and see how a professional, highly trained for power and accuracy, performs.” The caner wound up like a tennis pro serving at Wimbledon and smashed the cane dead center into the fake buttocks on the pillow, with a full follow through. The blow sent feathers flying everywhere. The visitors stood, staring in shock at the pillow.
“He doesn’t hit a real person that hard, I hope,” Susan said. “I mean, no one could survive that, could they?”
“Yes, of course, that is exactly how he delivers every stroke,” Warden Noba replied. “If each caner gave strokes as he felt like, then judges would have no idea how many to award for a given crime. It is essential that each stroke be given at full force. As for survival, no one has died yet under the cane, though some might have wished for it.”
“Now if you will please accompany me to the administrative gallery, the first offender will be brought out shortly and you will see how the caning is carried out,” speaking of it as though it was a minor medical procedure, rather than a horrible torture.
The Warden directed the visitors to an area a few meters to the side and behind the frame, shaded with a canopy and equipped with a number of chairs facing the frame. Seated there was a middle-aged man, who stood to greet the guests and was introduced to them by the Warden as Dr. Fong.
As the party was sitting down, the door in the wall opened and a female guard entered the parade ground, followed by a very frightened-looking young woman with a male guard behind her, urging her forward, despite her obvious reluctance to meet her fate. The prisoner was tall, at least for a Trabbian, and thin, with the coffee-colored skin and straight black hair typical of the country. She wore a green T shirt, blue shorts and flip flops. The Trabbian student cast a furtive glance at the sturdy caning stand and the muscular caner as the party came to stand in front of the Warden and her guests. She looked over at the American visitors, but, when her eyes met theirs, she blushed in shame and turned away to stare at the ground.
The Warden picked up one of the folders on the table in front of her and began reading from it. The prisoner answered briefly, her voice hoarse with fear. Thura explained that the Warden was confirming her name and sentence so that there could be no possibility of a mistake. A female guard came over with a basket like one would use for laundry and the Warden called out something. “She is ordering her to strip for her punishment, which is always administered in the nude,” Thura explained. The young woman looked quite mortified, as one might imagine, by the prospect of being naked in front of a mixed party including foreign guests. The Warden repeated the order, this time louder and the prisoner began by kicking off her sandals and placing them in the basket. Then, she pulled her T shirt over her head, which, since the uniform lacked a bra, exposed her pert breasts, with dark areolae and nipples standing up with fear and shame. Casting her eyes down to avoid the gaze of the onlookers, the young prisoner pulled her shorts down to her feet and stepped out of them, placing them carefully in the basket. She paused for a moment, and then, under the stern glare of the Warden and guards, pulled down her underpants and placed them in the basket with the rest of her uniform. Now she stood before the entire group, naked as the day she was born.