Ethical Treatment of Prisoners

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Ethical Treatment of Prisoners

When there are million’s of people 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 and earlier in the United States’ history this is how prisoners were treated. Now an eye for an eye 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 horrid conditions continued for many 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. The Supreme Court in essence used morals to guide their decision to give prisoners rights under the law using utilitarianism. Before deciding upon a course of action the Supreme Court saw what was best for the entire population over an infinite period of time and based their moral decision on that.

In a straightforward explanation, the word ethics means; a system of moral principles, the rules of conduct recognized in respect to a particular class of human actions or a particular group, culture, etc., moral principles as of an individual, and that branch of philosophy dealing with values relating to human conduct, with respect to the rightness and wrongness of certain actions and to the...
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