Part of a wrought iron fence against a bright blue sky.

Ethical Dilemmas in Prisoner Care 11(3)

Journal of Bioethical Inquiry, Volume 11, Issue 3 (September 2014)
Guest Editors: Tenzin Wangmo, David M. Shaw, and Bernice S. Elger


Crime and Punishment, Rehabilitation or Revenge: Bioethics for Prisoners?

Leigh E. Rich and Michael A. Ashby

Conducting Ethics Research in Prison: Why, Who, and What?

David M. Shaw, Tenzin Wangmo, and Bernice S. Elger

Critical Perspectives


Lorna Gibb

Scientific Integrity in Brazil

Liliane Lins, and Fernando Martins Carvalho

A Better Half: The Ethics of Hemicorporectomy Surgery

Jane Jankowski and Lisa Campo-Engelstein

Ethics, Rhetoric, and Expectations: Responsibilities and Obligations of Health Care Systems

Thomas Foreman

A Role for Research Ethics Committees in Exchanges of Human Biospecimens Through Material Transfer Agreements

Donald Chalmers, Dianne Nicol, Pilar Nicolás, and Nikolajs Zeps

Recent Developments

Patenting Treatment Methods

Sophie Flaherty

Original Research

Ethics, the Law, and Prisoners: Protecting Society, Changing Human Behavior, and Protecting Human Rights

Robert L. Trestman
Restricting a person’s liberty presents society with many inherent ethical challenges. The historical purposes of confinement have included punishment, penitence, containment, rehabilitation, and habilitation. While the purposes are indeed complex, multifaceted, and at times ambiguous or contradictory, the fact of incarceration intrinsically creates many ethical challenges for psychiatrists working in correctional settings. Role definition of a psychiatrist may be ambiguous, with potential tensions between forensic and therapeutic demands. Privacy may be limited or absent and confidentiality may be compromised. Patient autonomy may be threatened to address real or perceived security concerns. Care delivery may actually have harmful consequences in court cases for pretrial detainees or lethal consequences for those under a death sentence. An absence of data and targeted research hampers the development of evidence-based care delivery for the disenfranchised, understudied, and disproportionately ill prisoner population. In this review paper, I discuss a few of the challenges and dilemmas routinely faced and present a series of questions. Where feasible, proposed resolutions are offered.

Expert Perspectives on Western European Prison Health Services: Do Ageing Prisoners Receive Equivalent Care?

Wiebke Bretschneider and Bernice Simone Elger
Health care in prison and particularly the health care of older prisoners are increasingly important topics due to the growth of the ageing prisoner population. The aim of this paper is to gain insight into the approaches used in the provision of equivalent health care to ageing prisoners and to confront the intuitive definition of equivalent care and the practical and ethical challenges that have been experienced by individuals working in this field. Forty interviews took place with experts working in the prison setting from three Western European countries to discover their views on prison health care. Experts indicated that the provision of equivalent care in prison is difficult mostly due to four factors: variability of care in different prisons, gatekeeper systems, lack of personnel, and delays in providing access. This lack of equivalence can be fixed by allocating adequate budgets and developing standards for health care in prison.

Contextualising Professional Ethics: The Impact of the Prison Context on the Practices and Norms of Health Care Practitioners

Karolyn L. A. White, Christopher F. C. Jordens, and Ian Kerridge
Health care is provided in many contexts—not just hospitals, clinics, and community health settings. Different institutional settings may significantly influence the design and delivery of health care and the ethical obligations and practices of health care practitioners working within them. This is particularly true in institutions that are established to constrain freedom, ensure security and authority, and restrict movement and choice. We describe the results of a qualitative study of the experiences of doctors and nurses working within two women’s prisons in the state of New South Wales (NSW), Australia. Their accounts make clear how the provision and ethics of health care may be compromised by the physical design of the prison, the institutional policies and practices restricting movement of prisoners and practitioners, the focus on maintaining control and security, and the very purpose of the prison and prison system itself. The results of this study make clear the impact that context has on professional practice and illustrate the importance of sociology and anthropology to bioethics and to the development of a more nuanced account of professional ethics.

Disclosure of Past Crimes: An Analysis of Mental Health Professionals’ Attitudes Towards Breaching Confidentiality

Tenzin Wangmo, Violet Handtke, and Bernice Simone Elger
Ensuring confidentiality is the cornerstone of trust within the doctor–patient relationship. However, health care providers have an obligation to serve not only their patient’s interests but also those of potential victims and society, resulting in circumstances where confidentiality must be breached. This article describes the attitudes of mental health professionals (MHPs) when patients disclose past crimes unknown to the justice system. Twenty-four MHPs working in Swiss prisons were interviewed. They shared their experiences concerning confidentiality practices and attitudes towards breaching confidentiality in prison. Qualitative analysis revealed that MHPs study different factors before deciding whether a past crime should be disclosed, including: (1) the type of therapy the prisoner-patient was seeking (i.e., whether it was court-ordered or voluntary), (2) the type of crime that is revealed (e.g., a serious crime, a crime of a similar nature to the original crime, or a minor crime), and (3) the danger posed by the prisoner-patient. Based on this study’s findings, risk assessment of dangerousness was one of the most important factors determining disclosures of past crimes, taking into consideration both the type of therapy and the crime involved. Attitudes of MHPs varied with regard to confidentiality rules and when to breach confidentiality, and there was thus a lack of consensus as to when and whether past crimes should be reported. Hence, legal and ethical requirements concerning confidentiality breaches must be made clear and known to physicians in order to guide them with difficult cases.

Malign Neglect: Assessing Older Women’s Health Care Experiences in Prison

Ronald Aday and Lori Farney
The problem of providing mandated medical care has become commonplace as correctional systems in the United States struggle to manage unprecedented increases in its aging prison population. This study explores older incarcerated women’s perceptions of prison health care policies and their day-to-day survival experiences. Aggregate data obtained from a sample of 327 older women (mean age = 56) residing in prison facilities in five Southern states were used to identify a baseline of health conditions and needs for this vulnerable group. With an average of 4.2 chronic health conditions, frequently histories of victimization, and high rates of mental health issues, the women’s experiences of negotiating health care was particularly challenging. By incorporating the voices of older women, we expose the contradictions, dilemmas, and obstacles they experience in their attempts to obtain health care. It is clear from the personal accounts shared that, despite court mandates, penal harm practices such as delaying or denying medical treatment as well as occasional staff indifferences are common in women’s prisons. With older women having the greatest need for health care, an age- and gender-sensitive approach is recommended.

Ageing Prisoners’ Views on Death and Dying: Contemplating End-of-Life in Prison

Violet Handtke and Tenzin Wangmo
Rising numbers of ageing prisoners and goals on implementing equivalent health care in prison raise issues surrounding end-of-life care for prisoners. The paucity of research on this topic in Europe means that the needs of older prisoners contemplating death in prison have not been established. To investigate elderly prisoners’ attitudes towards death and dying, 35 qualitative interviews with inmates aged 51 to 71 years were conducted in 12 Swiss prisons. About half of the prisoners reported having thought about dying in prison, with some mentioning it in relation with suicidal thoughts and others to disease and old age. Themes identified during data analysis included general thoughts about death and dying, accounts of other prisoners’ deaths, availability of end-of-life services, contact with social relations, and wishes to die outside of prison. Study findings are discussed using Allmark’s concept of “death without indignities,” bringing forth two ethical issues: fostering autonomy and removing barriers. Attributing the identified themes to these two ethical actions clarifies the current needs of ageing prisoners in Switzerland and could be a first step towards the implementation of end-of-life services in correctional systems.

Understanding Death in Custody: A Case for a Comprehensive Definition

Géraldine Ruiz, Tenzin Wangmo, Patrick Mutzenberg, Jessica Sinclair, and Bernice Simone Elger
Prisoners sometimes die in prison, either due to natural illness, violence, suicide, or a result of imprisonment. The purpose of this study is to understand deaths in custody using qualitative methodology and to argue for a comprehensive definition of death in custody that acknowledges deaths related to the prison environment. Interviews were conducted with 33 experts, who primarily work as lawyers or forensic doctors with national and/or international organisations. Responses were coded and analysed qualitatively. Defining deaths in custody according to the place of death was deemed problematic. Experts favoured a dynamic approach emphasising the link between the detention environment and occurrence of death rather than the actual place of death. Causes of deaths and different patterns of deaths were discussed, indicating that many of these deaths are preventable. Lack of an internationally recognised standard definition of death in custody is a major concern. Key aspects such as place, time, and causes of death as well as relation to the prison environment should be debated and incorporated into the definition. Systematic identification of violence within prison institutions is critical and efforts are needed to prevent unnecessary deaths in prison and to protect vulnerable prisoners.


A Lasting Effect: Reflections on Music and Medicine

Charles Leduc

Case Studies

Global Health Case: Questioning Our Contributions

Kelly Anderson


Erratum to: Genetic Research and Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Australians

Emma Kowal, Glenn Pearson, Lobna Rouhani, Chris S. Peacock, Sarra E. Jamieson, and Jenefer M. Blackwell