By Greg Dober, MA 2007
I have been asked numerous times why I advocate for adequate human rights and conditions, especially adequate healthcare, for incarcerated individuals. I tend to jokingly refer to my graduate education at a Jesuit institution, Loyola University Chicago. However, there is a kernel of truth to the comment.
Nearly a decade ago, my capstone paper in the MA program for Bioethics and Health Policy critiqued and criticized the Institute of Medicine’s (IOM) recommendations to reopen prisons to general medical research. Many bioethicists and medical researchers from large research-oriented institutions were quick to seize the opportunity to support and testify on behalf of the IOM’s recommendations.i I was quite surprised and perplexed that many voices in the bioethics community, especially at these large research–oriented institutions, fell in line with the IOM or fell silent on this issue. It seemed that bioethics seemed to all but abandon incarcerated individuals to commodification as research subjects.
In 2013, a Jesuit priest, Cardinal Jorge Mario Bergoglio, became Pope Francis of the Roman Catholic Church. Since becoming pontiff, Pope Francis has spent time visiting prisoners and prisoner’s families and even washing the feet of inmates. In 2014, the Pontiff said to thousands of people gathered at St. Peter’s Square for an audience, “Listen up. Each one of us is capable of doing the same thing done by that man or woman in jail. All of us are capable of sinning and making the same mistake in life. They are not worse than you and I!”ii “Eureka!” I thought after this comment, another Jesuit has vindicated me!
Many people seem to get their perception of prison or jails from reality television shows, sensationalist news stories or even politicians. The media often conveys that all those incarcerated are evil, conniving, ruthless or violent. Simultaneously, they are often seen as having a better lot in life than some taxpayers who contribute to their support in prison. While many Americans cannot afford adequate health care, inmates and prisoners are protected under the 8th amendment of the Constitution and thereby receive medical care (subject to the interpretation of local authorities). In October 2014, Pope Francis reminded delegates at the International Association of Penal Law meeting that they should be wary of media and political portrayal and influence of incarcerated individuals and to do their job justly.
The statistics are staggering in the United States when it comes to locking up individuals. The United States leads the developed world when it comes to incarcerating its citizens at a rate of approximately 700 per 100k of population.iii This is compared to Germany at 78, or England at 148 per 100k. Approximately, 1 in 35 adults in the United States was under some form of correctional supervision-- either incarcerated, paroled or on probation, at year-end of 2013.iv 1 in 110 adults are actively incarcerated in state and federal prisons or local jails.v
In healthcare issues, an estimated 40% of state and federal prisoners and local jail inmates were reported having a current chronic medical condition.vi Twenty-one percent of prisoners were reported to have tuberculosis, hepatitis B or C, or other STDs (excluding HIV or AIDS).vii Due to failed corrections policies, these individuals are sometimes released to the general population of society without treatments and a risk to public health. Also, it is estimated that approximately 60% of those incarcerated in local jails and 55% in state prison facilities suffer from a mental illness requiring 12 month of continuous treatment.viii For those with mental illnesses and addictions, the system offers very little hope. In federal prisons, whole families lack adequate healthcare and nutrition from the mass warehousing of “undocumented immigrants.”
The reasons our society has found itself in an incarceration epidemic are many and varied. As a society, we seem to have an appetite to build more jails and prisons at the expense of community mental health centers and homeless shelters. Tough on crime polices gets votes for politicians from a paranoid public. Prison and jails create jobs, which makes it an easier political “sell.” With the current influx of privatized prisons and prison services, such as health care, our governments seek the lowest bidder at the expense of human dignity.
The policies and practices of our current incarceration system are flawed in many areas. Absurd policies exist that include allowing corrections department to not treat prisoners with hepatitis-C unless the inmate waives their parole. In essence, give up your freedom and receive treatments. Also, corrections departments with policies that refuse eye care for inmates going blind if the inmate has at least “one good eye.” In rural prisons, stroke victims often times do not have access to proper rehabilitation and are released with cognitive and physical disabilities. The system's current practices focus more on fiscal initiatives rather than human dignity. The system's punitive practices affect the mentally ill and the addicted when they are swept into the net via the judicial system.
There is no argument that there are people incarcerated that did bad things and deserve just punishment. However, a society’s greatness can be measured by the humanity and compassion it shows for its most vulnerable citizens, including victims of crime and those that may perpetrate them. Pope Francis often speaks of the compassion that we are to have for the incarcerated and reminds of us of our responsibility to insure human dignity for all humans, victims and perpetrators alike.
Under Pennsylvania state law, I and a few other nongovernment individuals are designated as “Official Visitor.” The designation grants us the same access to prison and jails; as state officials, to review, resolve or mitigate inmate’s complaints. During my visits, I see first hand the problems in the jails and prisons. Often it is a lack of basic or adequate health care, mental health care and inadequate addiction treatment and support programs. When mitigating or trying to resolve an issue between the inmate and state or county governments, I reflect on Pope Francis’s comments mentioned earlier. The person on the other end of the conversation could have been me with one wrong choice, one addiction I could not beat or even the wrong birthright as a citizen.
Greg Dober is a 2007 graduate of the MA in Bioethics and Health Policy. He is contributing writer for Prison Legal News and coauthor of Against Their Will; The Secret History of Medical Experimentation on Children in Cold War America. (Palgrave 2013)
i Institute of Medicine, (2007) Ethical Considerations for Research Involving Prisoners, National Academies Press, Washington D.C.
ii Cindy Wooden, (2015) There but for the grace of God: What Pope Francis thinks of prisoners. The Catholic Sun, May 28, 2015.
iii BJS, (2013) Correctional populations in the United States, December 2013, NCJ 243936.
vi BJS (2006) Special report, mental health problems of inmates in prisons and jails. September 2006, NJC213600
vii BJS (2015) Medical problems of state and federal jail inmates, 2011-2012. February 2015
viii BJS (2006) Special report, mental health problems of inmates in prisons and jails. September 2006, NJC213600