The Ethical Treatment of Prisoners

Some people believe the history of corrections shows continuous movement toward more humane treatment of prisoners as society has progressed. In the beginning punishments for prisoners were considered a corporal punishment which was whipping, beheading, dismembering, torture or even death. There was fines, dispersion of property were common which was more common than the physical torture. Execution was the economic and corporal punishment as the estate was forfeited. The economic and physical sanctions have given way of imprisonment less depreciation in the liberty of parole and probation.

When there are thousands of crimes incarcerated throughout the United States, the ethical treatment of prisoner’s rights must be analyzed. Throughout the years many modifications have been made to accommodate inmates and preserve their basic human rights. Have we as a society done enough regarding the ethical treatment of prisoners or have we made their lives in prison too easy that it is no longer a punishment for them? There are many people in the United States who have strong feelings of what is right and wrong and fall on both sides of this question.

Utilitarianism is the belief that moral rules should be choices made by a society to promote the happiness of its members Mosser (2010). Through the utilitarian view the argument could be made that these prisoners are being treated to good and not good enough. Utilitarianism gives an understandable, theoretical foundation for moral decision making. Prior to coming to a decision upon a course of action, the utilitarian is asked to consider its effects on the entire population over an infinite period of time Mosser (2010).

One problem with this method of decision-making is that many people might not agree with the premise that maximization of happiness should be the basis for morality. An example of this is an eye for an eye; if you kill someone in my family then I will have your life. In earlier history like the cowboy era this is how criminals were treated. Now, this is no longer accepted in our society. Our society’s ethical values have changed. For hundreds of years, prisoners had no rights. That is until 1909 when the Georgia Supreme Court ruled that although convicts have lost their freedom; they do have civil rights Davenport (2009).

During this era, institutions were legally immune in state and federal courts from lawsuits, also called the hands-off doctrine, wardens ran their facilities as they felt necessary and were not held accountable for the conditions that existed in their facility Davenport (2009). Prisoners were beaten regularly and denied the basics such as food, medical care, and protection from staff or other inmates. These types of incidents continued for many of years. In the 1960’s several legal avenues opened for prisoners. Prisoners would now have the ability to have their grievances heard in state and federal courts.

One of the major changes that enabled this is the cruel and unusual punishment clause of the Eighth Amendment; another is the civil rights provisions of Section 1983 of Title 42 of the U. S. Code Davenport (2009). The Eighth Amendment asserts that excessive bail shall not be required, nor excessive fines imposed, nor cruel and unusual punishment inflicted Davenport (2009). The cruel and unusual punishment clause was not intended for prisoners; rather the focus was on punishment outside the law. The clause also did not apply to state prisoners.

The Supreme Court heard very few cases in this era. In the 1960’s, the Supreme Court began to incorporate the Bill of Rights to state laws. This meant the cruel and unusual punishment clause now included prisons and prisoners. Prisoner’s then began to file suits to change the way prisons operated, citing cruel and unusual punishment, inadequate healthcare, demanding more access to courts and due process. People who are employed in the justice system have to exhibit strength of mind and body to prove they are worthy to be in charge of those who may be a danger to society.

This fact alone places these individuals in a position of power, and without a personal and professional code of ethics to live by; this power could be taken out of context. This could lead to damage within the system, as well as out on the street. For these people must make moral decisions everyday. A personal set of ethics can often be hard to define. Ethics are not on a person’s mind as they make various choices throughout the day. When a person sub-consciously makes one judgment or another, they are not aware that ethics plays a role in the decisions that are made.

In examining ethical egoism and utilitarianism my personal view is definitely closer to utilitarianism than ethical egoism. Utilitarianism is an exceedingly, even extremely demanding moral view for most people. If we have a duty to always bring about the best outcome, than any time we can increase the well-being of others, we have a moral duty to do so. I believe it is morally better to help the most people at a time than to serve the self interest of one person. The thousands of crimes incarcerated throughout the United States had their day in court and are now housed in a penal institution to serve out their sentence.

As a society we have passed ethical laws to protect the prisoners against harm from others and to make sure they are treated with respect. Through the eyes of utilitarianism arguments are made that these prisoners are being treated to good by some and not good enough by others. Regardless of which theories or ethical beliefs a person chooses to believe in they must follow the law or they could end up as a prisoner in the United States. Those in the justice system sworn to protect prisoners can not choose to follow their own beliefs but they must follow the laws and regulation set forth before them.

Ethics as a form of intellectual inquiry does not provide answers to moral questions. People with beliefs about right and wrong do. Societies are built upon those beliefs. As we have analyzed the ethical treatment of prisoners with theories of ethics we can argue that society’s views of right and wrong coincide with reality, are representative of the objective moral order, and encompass the will of the people with regards to their treatment. Davenport, A. U. (2009). Basic criminal law: the constitution, procedure, and crimes (2nd Ed. ). Upper Saddle River: Pearson