inside hallway of a prison

Hastings Center Report

Fifty Years of U.S. Mass Incarceration and What It Means for Bioethics

Abstract: A growing body of literature has engaged with mass incarceration as a public health problem. This article reviews some of that literature, illustrating why and how bioethicists can and should engage with the problem of mass incarceration as a remediable cause of health inequities. “Mass incarceration” refers to a phenomenon that emerged in the United States fifty years ago: imprisoning a vastly larger proportion of the population than peer countries do, with a greatly disproportionate number of incarcerated people being members of marginalized racial and ethnic groups. Bioethicists have long engaged with questions of health justice for incarcerated people, including consent issues for those participating in research and access to health care. This article provides an overview of the individual and public health impacts of mass incarceration. The article argues that mass incarceration is a bioethics issue that should be addressed in medical education, identifies opportunities for bioethicists to guide hospitals’ interactions with law enforcement officials, and calls on bioethicists to be in conversation with medical and nursing students and health care professionals about these groups’ advocacy efforts concerning structural racism, police violence, and mass incarceration.

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