Ethical Issues in Correctional Systems

By Noel Lawrence - Updated June 19, 2017
Inmates in prison

Though inmates may not possess a strong moral fiber, the prison is a site of numerous ethical issues for guards, lawmakers and officials who run correctional systems. Every policy and procedure must balance the interests of the taxpayer, the prison staff and the incarcerated population. Not surprisingly, there is a substantive lack of consensus on proper standards for ethical issues in correctional systems.

Rehabilitation vs. Punishment

Except in the rare cases of innocence, convicts are in jail because they did something bad. In many cases, they have stole, killed, or caused great harm to people and society. Punishing prisoners by locking them up in an extremely unpleasant place for a long time aims to deter potential criminals from perpetrating similar deeds. At the same time, poor and unsafe conditions harden their anti-social instincts, making it difficult to re-enter society after release. To make them productive citizens, educational and vocational training can help as well as a reasonable guarantee of protection against brutality from guards and other prisoners. But these programs require money from honest taxpayers who may prefer to keep their legitimate income from bettering the lives of those that have done wrong.

Prison Privatization

A possible workaround for using taxpayer money to fund prisons is to give up their administration to private companies. Opponents argue that the profit motive encourages corporations to reduce costs needed to ensure the safety of prisoners, staff and the public. Further, private prisons have an incentive to keep convicts longer as more inmates mean more profits. They may lobby the government to pass unneeded mandatory minimum sentencing laws and exert a negative influence on parole hearings. However, advocates point to the public demand for increased incarceration and harsher sentencing during difficult economic times when the government cannot afford this.

Prison Labor

One important way of reforming prisoners is giving them jobs in prison. Even menial tasks help instill a sense of responsibility and develop the proper mindset for work after release. At the same time, many businesses have profiteered off their captive workforce by paying them significantly less than civilian employees. Further, prisons often do not have the same safety regulations that a union shop would demand. As a result, worker exploitation is a frequent outcome.

Prison Guard Ethics

Prison guards face numerous ethical dilemmas on the job. For instance, well-connected prisoners have many opportunities to bribe them for better treatment. Other inmates may be abusive to guards for no reason. In either case, the guard must treat prisoners equally. They must enforce prison rules firmly and consistently. Not only does this policy ensure smooth prison administration, it provides an ethical model for prisoners to follow.

About the Author

Noel Lawrence has written on cultural affairs and cinema for Release Print and OtherZine since 2000. He holds a graduate degree in Russian literature from Stanford University and currently lives in Los Angeles.

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