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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Women, Girls, and Mass Incarceration: A Hidden Problem

Goodwin-Headshot11By Michele Goodwin

Mass incarceration’s invisible casualties are women and children.  Too often, they are the forgotten in a tragic American tale that distinguishes the United States from all peer nations.  Simply put, the U.S. incarcerates more of its population than anywhere else in the world–and by staggering contrast.  While the U.S. locks away over 700 men and women for every 100,000, here are comparable figures from our peer nations:  England (153 in 100,000), France (96 in 100,000), Germany (85 in 100,000), Italy (111 in 100,000), and Spain (159, in 100,000).  The U.S. accounts for less than 5% of the globes population, yet locks away nearly 25%.  Sadly, this has grave social, medical, psychological, and economic consequences.

Congressional Briefing on Women, Girls, and Mass Incarceration

In a recent essay, published in the Texas Law Review, I explained that, the population of women in prison grew by 832% in the period between 1977-2007—nearly twice the rate as men during that same period. More conservative estimates suggest that the rate of incarceration of women grew by over 750% during the past three decades. This staggering increase now results in more than one million incarcerated in prison, jail, or tethered to the criminal justice system as a parolee or probationer in the U.S. The Bureau of Justice Statistics underscores the problem, explaining in a “Special Report” that “[s]ince 1991, the number of children with a mother in prison has more than doubled, up 131%,” while “[t]he number of children with a father in prison has grown [only] by 77%.” Read More