Prisoner Release During COVID-19: A Philosophical Evaluation

November 30, 2020
Gillian Beck

Toronto, Ontario, Canada

Class of 2021

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Justice, equity, and impartiality; the three most essential factors to be considered when discussing human detainment. Imprisoning citizens is not as simple of a task as it may seem, for there are multiple considerations that must be made when determining an individual's sentence. Generally, the details that are evaluated when discussing an inmate’s future are standardized, however, as life advances and new challenges arise, standard procedures must change. Following the recent outbreak of the Coronavirus pandemic, life has had to change in various ways, one being the way penitentiaries function. Prison detainment during COVID-19 has become a large human rights issue and can be argued through the lens of both a utilitarian and a deontologist, in order to evaluate the ethical morality of the situation. One may argue from both perspectives in order to truly determine what is best for both the prisoners and the population as a whole.

The justice system that citizens must abide by changes across various locations, and is far more complex than one may realize. The outbreak of a deadly virus that has already eliminated nearly eleven thousand Canadian citizens, makes human detainment countrywide far more difficult. The morality behind imprisoning people during this time has been largely debated and is an extremely controversial subject. People across the country have been advocating for the release of non-violent prisoners, for they would like to prioritize the health and safety of inmates during the pandemic. It has been argued that prisoners are in very close contact with one another, and are unable to maintain sufficient hygiene and self-isolation. Amanda Hart-Dowhun, the president of the Alberta Prison Justice society, has proclaimed that inmates do not have easy access to soap and water, that prisoner transport vehicles are only cleaned once someone inside has had symptoms of the virus, and that if someone does contract the virus within a prison facility, it will be nearly impossible to stop the spread (Germano, 2020). Furthermore, there have been confirmed cases of both inmates and correctional officers testing positive for the virus, providing further evidence of the importance of dealing with this issue immediately.

Hearing about the severity of the virus within prisons, multiple Canadian organizations have reached out to provincial and federal officers, requesting the release of both non-violent prisoners, and inmates awaiting trials. There have also been requests for early parole, as well as the desire to release all youth, asylum seekers, and immigrants in custody. Various institutions across Canada have heard the cries of the people, and have chosen to act in their favor. In Alberta, they have chosen to allow people who serve jail time on weekends to instead do so in the self-isolated conditions of their own home, otherwise known as house arrest. Furthermore, Alberta has been acting on their citizens’ wishes and assessing youth cases to be sent home. Eastward of Alberta, Ontario has decided that immigrants serving on the weekends will be granted temporary absences and that the parole board will be able to use alternatives to in-person meetings. Moreover, Ontario is trying to prevent the spread of the virus by allowing temporary absences beyond the seventy-two-hour maximum, as well as allowing the early release of some inmates nearing the end of their sentences.

Although there are tremendous efforts being made to combat the outbreak of the virus within penitentiaries, there are still many issues that must be addressed in order to maintain a healthy environment. Spokeswoman Lucie Lemonade stated that there is a lack of masks and protective gear for prison staff, as well as a lack of soap distribution for the inmates. Lemonade, a Canadian citizen, advocates for the early release of prisoners to avoid this issue (Germano, 2020). Contrarily, there are various other locations across the world that are combating the virus in different ways and are against the release of inmates. In places such as Queensland and Victoria in Australia, legislation enabling the early release of prisoners has been denied (Kohlbacher, 2020). Therefore, it is extremely evident that there are various issues regarding the spread of COVID and the health and safety measures being taken within prisons worldwide.

One can examine the matter of imprisoning citizens during the global pandemic through the critical lens of a utilitarian. Utilitarians believe that making morally right choices means making choices whose consequences will bring about the greatest pleasure for most people. In the novel, Utilitarianism, John Stuart Mills stated:

“The utilitarian morality does recognize in human beings the power of sacrificing their own greatest good for the good of others. It only refuses to admit that the sacrifice is itself a good. A sacrifice which does not increase, or tend to increase, the sum total of happiness, it considers as wasted.” —John Stuart Mills (1861)

This quote directly correlates to the issue of imprisonment during the Coronavirus, for I believe it demonstrates that a utilitarian would argue that the government should leave the prisoners in detainment and sacrifice their own health for the greater good of the population. I believe this is what the quote indicates, for it states that the greatest good of others should be prioritized over the good of a few. By releasing the inmates, the government would be putting the rest of the population at risk, for there would be prospective criminals on the streets. Thus, when arguing whether prisoners should be released due to the pandemic, John Stuart Mills would be in opposition.

Jeremy Bentham, another famous utilitarian, had his own distinct viewpoints on utilitarianism. He believed that utilitarianism was a theory based on the idea that actions are right proportionally to how much happiness they produce. In his book, An Introduction to the Principles of Morals and Legislation, he stated:

“If at the hands of such chance persons in the community, as the party in question may happen in the course of his life to have concerns with, according to each man's spontaneous disposition, and not according to any settled or concerted rule, it may be said to issue from the moral or popular sanction.” —Jeremy Bentham (1781)

This quote demonstrates how Bentham would agree with Mills, for he would argue that keeping the inmates in prison, even if the conditions are not favorable with the existence of the virus, is the best option, for it would maximize the pleasure of the surrounding community. Many individuals have fought for the release of prisoners, such as those in Queensland who fear the risk of homelessness if inmates do not get advance parole (Kohlbacher, 2020). However, Bentham would view the situation as being beneficial for the few prisoners at risk, but not for the areas in which the prisoners are being released because there would be individuals with unfinished sentences roaming the streets. Therefore, Bentham would encourage the institutions to prevent the release of prisoners for the time being.

There are also various other individuals who are interested in utilitarianism but are not as well known as Bentham and Mills. Carla Tardi, the author of Utilitarianism, an online article, discusses utilitarianism as the belief that actions can be deemed right as long as they end in pleasure and prevent pain, similar to Mills’ theory. She explained that the purpose of civil or criminal laws is to maximize the pleasure or happiness of society as a whole. Tardi believed that happiness is the only thing that is intrinsically good and that the rightness of an action is determined by its utility. In her article, she stated:

“When directed toward making social, economic, or political decisions, a utilitarian philosophy would aim for the betterment of society as a whole.” — Carla Tardi (2020)

It is quite evident that Tardi would be in agreement with the beliefs of both Bentham and Mills, for she would believe that releasing the prisoners would not be the best social, economic, or political decision for the society, as it would put the citizens of the area in jeopardy. The Victorian government in Australia agreed with the opinions of Tardi, for they stated that they had no plans to free inmates, even after six prisoners had to be put into lockdown due to contracting the virus. The Premier, Daniel Andrews, made a statement declaring that this was not a focus of his government (McGinn and Offer, 2020). Therefore, Tardi, although a less renounced utilitarian, believed in the same morals as those who had come before her.

Another viewpoint that the issue of prisoner release during the Coronavirus can be evaluated through is deontology. Deontology was founded by the esteemed philosopher, Immanuel Kant. Immanuel Kant was credited with the introduction of the categorical imperative, a philosophy in which one believes that it is best to choose the same course of action in all situations. Kant believed that having goodwill and acting on moral principles justified by reason is the same and that one is responsible for being their own moral agent. He wrote the novel, Groundwork for the Metaphysic of Morals, in order to develop a clearer understanding of moral principles and to allow people to better avoid distractions. In his well-renowned book, he stated:

“Act in such a way that you treat humanity, whether in your own person or in the person of another, always at the same time as an end and never simply as a means.” —Immanuel Kant (1785)

Using this excerpt, I believe that Kant would argue for the release of the prisoners in this situation, for he would believe that by exposing the prisoners to the virus within the detainment center, one would be using them as a means, rather than an end. He would believe this because by leaving them in the facility one is looking towards the safety and security of the community, rather than that of the inmates. Kant would argue that society is objectifying the prisoners as dangerous criminals, instead of simply regarding them as human beings who make mistakes, just as everyone else does. He would argue that in every situation it is best to look at the people in question as subjects, rather than objects, no matter what the circumstances are. Thus, Kant would argue for the release of the prisoners, unlike a utilitarian.

In the modern era, there are other facets where one could receive information about philosophy. The Stanford Encyclopedia for Philosophy is a wonderful resource for all ethical dilemmas and speaks in-depth to the topic of deontology. The article on deontology states that a deontologist can do more that is morally praiseworthy than morality demands. It further explains that deontological theories possess the strong advantage of being able to account for strong, widely shared moral institutions. Furthermore, a deontological perspective has the potential to explain why certain people have the moral standing to complain about and hold to account those who breach moral duties, such as judges and police officers. The article states:

“On the one hand, deontological morality, in contrast to consequentialism, leaves space for agents to give special concern to their families, friends, and projects.” —Deontological Ethics (2007)

This quote indicates that once again a deontologist would argue for the release of prisoners, specifically keeping in mind certain needs of specific individuals. Amid the outbreak of COVID-19, a judge in Minnesota decided to grant release to an asthmatic prisoner into the custody of his parents. This was considered a compassionate release case, which relates accordingly to this except from the Stanford Encyclopedia for philosophy, due to the case's personal standings (McKinney, 2020). Therefore, one examining the issue of prison release from the deontological perspective would argue for granting early parole and release for certain individuals.

In conclusion, the challenges presented to prisons during the pandemic can be assessed through both a utilitarian and deontological perspective. There are various arguments that could be proposed from either viewpoint, and each one contrasts with each other ever so slightly. In the past, one could never imagine that this would be an issue that they would be faced with, although as times change and new obstacles surface, one must be prepared to take on all that life may throw their way. It is important that we as a population prepare ourselves for even what we may deem most unlikely, because the world is full of mysteries, and there are so many things to still be uncovered. All of these unknowns can be tackled through various ethical perspectives, and it is essential that we are well-versed in them in order to tackle our everyday lives. Thus, maybe the three most important concepts when dealing with the prison system are not justice, equity, and impartiality, but rather adaptation, adjustment, and redefinition.

“The secret of change is to focus all of your energy not on fighting the old, but on building the new!” —Socrates

Gillian Beck is a BBG from L'chaim BBG #2444 in Lake Ontario Region Canada who loves animals.

All views expressed on content written for The Shofar represent the opinions and thoughts of the individual authors. The author biography represents the author at the time in which they were in BBYO.

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