Reflecting on Behind Bars: Ethics and Human Rights in U.S. Prisons

By Gali Katznelson

Is it justifiable to chain women as they give birth? How about confining people in a way that is proven to be psychologically devastating and torturous? These are just two of the questions raised last week during the conference, Behind Bars: Ethics and Human Rights in U.S. Prisons, a conference sponsored by the Center for Bioethics at Harvard Medical School.

To kick off the two day event, Dr. Danielle Allen delivered a moving keynote in which she urged us to question two key issues: the ethics of the treatment of those behind bars, as well as the ethics of using bars. In addressing this second point, Dr. Allen tasked everyone attending the conference with a ‘homework assignment’: to read Sentencing and Prison Practice in Germany and the Netherlands: Implications for the United States, in order to encourage us to “think the unthinkable,” namely a more humane way to treat people who have committed crimes.

From this report, I learned that in Germany and the Netherlands, incarceration is seen as a last resort for individuals convicted of crimes. Alternative non-custodial sanctioning and diversion systems such as fines and task-penalties exist – and are effective. In 2010, 6% of sanctioning resulted in incarceration in Germany and in 2004, 92% of sentences were for two years or less. These incarceration systems are organized around the principles of resocialization and rehabilitation. Time spent in prison is meant to be as similar as possible to community life, and incarcerated people are encouraged to cultivate relationships within and outside of prison. In prison, individuals can wear their own clothes, structure their own days, work for pay, study, parent their children in mother-child units, vote, and return home occasionally. In these systems, respect for persons, privacy, and autonomy are strongly held values. Solitary confinement is rarely used, and cannot exceed four weeks a year in Germany, and two weeks a year in the Netherlands.

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