The Ethical Treatment of Prisoners:
A Discussion and Application of Different Ethical Theories
Chelsie A. Thomas
SOC 120 Introduction to Ethics & Social Responsibility
26 August 2013
There are more than 1.5 million prisoners under the jurisdiction of state or federal correctional facilities in the U.S., with the largest number of prisoners in the world it is no wonder why the ethical treatment of prisoners is such a hot button topic (U.S. Department of Justice, 2013). There is much concern over violating individual human rights of prisoners; however, ensuring proper treatment and rehabilitation often comes with a hefty price tag. Many are concerned about rising costs in prison and how that might affect the average American. I will explore two opposing ethical views on the subject of the ethical treatment of prisoners in the U.S. and follow by including my own personal opinion on the topic. Initially, the use of “long-term imprisonment as the primary punishment for convicted criminals began in the United States. In the late eighteenth century, the nonviolent Quakers in Pennsylvania proposed long-term confinement as an alternative to capital punishment” (West's Encyclopedia of American Law. 2005). This prevented Quakers from committing a sin of killing someone who may have been innocent of their accused crimes. A long time has passed since the first American prisons; technology has advanced by leaps and bounds making the chances of convicting an innocent person far less likely than in the late eighteenth century. If the original use of prisons were to protect citizens from sin what is the purpose of prison now? By asking the question of what purpose prison is supposed to serve we are using the deontology approach to ethics. According to the deontology theory which states we must “looks at the reason for which an act is done, and the rule according to which one chooses to act” (Mosser, 2010). Deontology doesn't deny that acts have consequences; rather, it insists that those consequences should not play a role in our moral evaluation of such acts” (Mosser, 2010). The reason we imprison our criminals will determine how we should treat them. To this to determine what ethical treatment of prisoners in the penal system is we must first identify what the purpose of placing someone in prison is. Is the prison system designed to protect innocent civilians, rehabilitate criminals, and/or punish them? If the sole reason behind imprisonment is protecting our citizens then those who committed violent crimes, especially repeat offenders would probably be incarcerated for life or be submitted to corporal punishment to ensure the safety of our citizens. Since prison was originally created to ensure innocent people were not killed for a crime they didn’t commit, then today capital punishment could be utilized more because technology has allowed our judicial system to be much more certain of a person’s innocence or guilt based on things like video surveillance and DNA. However, we can’t forget the rights of the prisoners, since they too are citizens. We have to consider the protection of the prisoners and their rights once they are incarcerated because they deserve the same protection that is being provided by locking them up. If we house individuals who are guilty of non-violent crimes like petty theft and drug use amongst a more dangerous population of murderers and rapists, it would not be very ethical because it places them in danger of becoming victims themselves. This is why it is would be imperative to have different facilities in which to house criminals whose crimes are violent in nature from those who are not. In addition, protection of prisoners also includes protection from guards who may abuse their power and unnecessarily harm the prison population. While some believe prison is meant to protect the population others might say the sole purpose is...
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