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


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.

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Correspondence to Robert L. Trestman.

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Trestman, R.L. Ethics, the Law, and Prisoners: Protecting Society, Changing Human Behavior, and Protecting Human Rights. Bioethical Inquiry 11, 311–318 (2014).

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  • Psychiatry
  • Challenges
  • Human rights
  • Pragmatics
  • Prosocial
  • Ethical behavior