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Posted on December 30, 2019 at 9:28 AM

Last month,
PBS aired the remarkable documentary College Behind Bars.
This four-part film follows men and women incarcerated in New York state as
they make their way through a rigorous liberal arts degree program offered by
Bard College. The Bard Prison Initiative is one of several programs offering
college classes within the U.S. correctional system – a system which carries
the dubious distinction of holding nearly twenty-five percent of the world’s
prisoners. (The U.S. comprises 5% of the world’s population).

I have
taught courses in several prison higher education programs, including a course on
bioethics.  People have often asked me,
“what is like to teach ethics to prisoners?” 
While I understand their curiosity, I dislike this question. Teaching in
prison does differ from teaching on campus in a number of important ways – most
saliently, through restrictions on classroom technologies. But the question
implies that there is something special or different about teaching
morally-laden subject matter to students who have been convicted of serious and
sometimes violent crimes. People are not inquiring about the impact of the
prison environment on teaching and learning bioethics, but rather about people
in prison as moral beings. The question suggests that prisoners are somehow
morally different than those of us on the outside.

In fact,
people in prison are us. One in
Americans have a family member who has spent time in jail or prison.
Those of us who have not are likely white and/or financially well-off, as mass
incarceration has disproportionately targeted low income communities and people
of color.  As Evelyn Patterson
, people in prison “represent a small proportion of those who commit
delinquent acts. Prisoners are people are the people who were caught, indicted,
and punished via incarceration.” (Think of the example of sexual violence, a
crime experienced by more than 1 in 3
women and nearly 1 in 4 men in the United States. The vast majority
of perpetrators do not even enter the criminal justice system, much less serve

That said, I
did find that teaching bioethics in prison differed from teaching bioethics on
campus, and not just because I couldn’t stream video clips or email my
students. Incarcerated students are immersed within the ethically fraught ‘total
institution’ of the prison, a space anthropologist Lorna Rhodes described as
“designed to activate a
sense of threat to the coherence of the self” (2004, 56).
living and witnessing
the moral failures of mass incarceration on a daily basis. When they sought
medical assistance, they faced the bioethical challenges of delivering and
receiving care in a context of punishment. 
These challenges occur at all levels of the health care system, from the
micro-level of clinician/patient trust to institutional and society-level questions
about access to and deservingness of treatment. 
In future posts, I’ll be addressing some of these ethical challenges
more specifically, as well as exploring social and historical issues related to
health and mass incarceration. 


In the
meantime, PBS will
be streaming Prison Behind Bars for free through late January. 


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