Ethical Issues Behind Mass Incarcerations

Ethical Issues Behind Mass Incarcerations

Final Paper

SOC120: Introduction to Ethics & Social Responsibility

Ethical Issues Behind Mass Incarceration

The rise of the prison population over the past 80 years has made some people question the justice system as well as the politics which go along with it. The steady incline of mass incarcerations and the prison industrial complex would lead a person to believe there are some ethical issues which need to be addressed. In the next few paragraphs we will discuss some ethical theories concerning mass incarceration. I will use utilitarianism to argue that locking up people who break the law follows the utilitarian theory in that “given a set of choices, the act we choose is that which produces the best results for the greatest number affected by that choice” (Mosser, K., 2013). In other words, we lock up people who commit crimes to keep others in society safe. In addition, I will use the deontology theory that is “sometimes referred to as duty ethics, focusing on what we are obligated to do as rational moral agents” (Mosser, K., 2013). Even though these people have committed crimes are they not be treated as human beings with dignity and respect, and given the opportunity to rehabilitate? Finally, I will use the ethical egoism perspective to prove the political involvement in mass incarcerations (Prison Industrial Complex). Ethical egoism is described as “what is at the center of egoism: I do what I want to do in order to increase my own happiness, my own pleasure. Simply put I know what I want, and something is good, or right, if it helps me to obtain my desire (and bad, or wrong if it interferes with my doing so)” (Mosser, K., 2013).


In this paragraph we will learn how the utilitarian theory plays an integral part in mass incarceration. Utilitarianism “argues that, given a set of choices, the act we should choose is that which produces the best results for the greater number affected by that choice” (Mosser, K., 2013). In other words, do what is best for the greater good. When one speaks of mass incarcerations many people tend to have a hard time differentiating between offenders. There are many who view an offender as an offender. Meaning all offenders who are in prison are bad people, they are all the same, forgetting that in the 1980’s there was a mass incarceration of offenders for non-violent crimes, mostly drug related crimes. “The country’s “war on drugs” introduced strict sentencing guidelines, which reduced the discretion of judges and parole boards” (Democracy in America, 2015, para. 4). This led to a mass incarceration of offenders, according to 2013 study conducted by Michael Stoll and Steven Raphael “during this time the incarceration rate climbed upwards of 20%” (Democracy in America, 2015, para. 4). Utilizing the utilitarian theory some would say this rise in incarcerations was regarded as a just and ethical decision because by locking up these non-violent offenders and people who sell drugs, we are essentially stopping other crime, and deterring these people from committing these crimes, which is better for most of society. However, Michael Stoll and Steven Raphael wrote in a paper for Brookings Institution “locking away a large number of less dangerous people for long periods delivers very little in additional public safety” (Democracy in America, 2015, para. 5). Using the utilitarian theory, we can also argue, mass incarceration could also affect larger numbers of people when you view how many families it would affect. For example, locking up one person for a drug related offense or non-violent crime for 20 years wouldn’t affect him as much being one person, as it would say his wife, children, parents, and if you want to look at it from a societal point of view, the taxpayers would save money. Therefore, him not going to prison, but receiving rehab would be what is best for the greater number of people.

It is no secret the incarceration of United States citizens has been at a critically high point in the past. Although it has declined since the beginning of 2000s it is still high. In 2014, “2.5 million Americans were held in local jails or state and federal prisons, meaning 698 out of every 100,000 Americans are incarcerated” (Schanzenbach, D., & Nunn, R., Bauer, L., Breitweiser, A., Mumford, M., and Nantz, G., 2016). The number of people incarcerated since 1980 has risen dramatically from 1.84 million to 6.85 million in 2014 according to Schanzenbach et al., 2016. With our incarceration rate being so extensive, the question remains, how do we lower it. Many people are looking for that answer, and seems that it begins with rehabilitation of offenders, so they can become contributing members of society. It seems the government is seeing a need for this also. A new act was put into place to help people who are incarcerated get a fresh start. The act is called the “Formerly Incarcerated Reenter Society Transformed 6 Safely Transitioning Every Person Act” (The First Step Act) (H.R. 3356), introduced by Rep. Doug Collins (R-Ga.). and 21 bipartisan co-sponsors is scheduled for a vote by the U.S. House Judiciary Committee” (Head, T., 2018). This type of legislation is pertinent to help in prison reform and lower the number of Americans incarcerated.


Here we will learn how the theory of deontology also is incorporated in the subject of mass incarceration. The deontological theory states “coming from the Greek deon, which means, “duty,” deontology (sometimes referred to as duty ethics) focuses on what we are obligated to do as rational moral agents” (Mosser, K., 2013). With mass incarcerations it was ultimately found the recidivism rate of offenders, whether they committed violent crimes or non-violent, were on the rise. Offenders would be let out of prison, just to turn around and commit the same crime again or another crime. “Recidivism has become known as the “revolving-door” in and out of prisons. 67.8% of all released prisoners are re-arrested within three years of release” (“The problem with recidivism,” n.d.). Recidivism can potentially be reduced if we focus on what most mission statements for penitentiaries state, to rehabilitate the offenders. For example, the Texas Department of Criminal Justice mission statement is “The mission of the Texas Department of Criminal Justice is to Provide Public Safety, Promote Positive change in offender behavior, reintegrate offenders into society, and assist victims of crime” (“The Mission of the Texas Department of Criminal Justice,” n.d.). Their mission statement specifies in two different parts, it will help the offender population to become productive member of society again. With the officials who operate these prisons being held responsible for rehabilitating the offenders. There need to be more programs and less of the “lock them up and throw away the key mentality,” and the officials operating the prisons need to realize not everyone in prison is incarcerated for a heinous crime.

Utilizing the deontology theory, we as moral agents should take a step back and realize all offenders are human, regardless of the act committed. In other words, they have a right to things such as water, food, and clothes, essentially necessity items. They should be treated as humans and not monsters. Thinking on the deontology theory you could argue, if a man is treated humane, in some cases, his criminal tendencies may decline. However, if he is treated like an animal he will more than likely keep the criminal mentality. If given the opportunity to improve and learn, his outcome will probably be a lot better, therefore when he returns to the “free world” he is less likely to return to prison and become a productive member of society.

Americans are starting to realize prison reform is a positive thing on many different levels. According to Francis Cullen and Erik Luna of USA Today “9 out of 10 Americans agree it is important to try and rehabilitate those who have committed crimes and are in the correctional system” (2018). However, getting politician such as Jeff Sessions to agree to prison reform is a little easier said than done, and these are the people we need to understand that locking offenders up and throwing away the key is not a deterrent to crime. (Cullen, F., & Luna, E., 2018). Also, it is not a way to treat a human being, nor help them develop into a better person.

Furthermore, by helping them develop into a better person, we can slow down the recidivism rate, which is a contributing factor to the amount of people currently incarcerated in the United States. “In a most recent study of recidivism, 77 percent of state prisoners who were released in 2005 had been arrested again by 2010. Recidivism is the highest immediately after release” (Schanzenbach, D., et al., 2016). Therefore, it is so important to have programs to help offenders gain employment, get housing, and get an education as soon as they are released, so they at least have a chance not to return to prison and be a productive member of their communities.

Ethical Egoism

The perspective of ethical egoism “the literal meaning of “ego” comes from the Greek word for “self,” or “I,” and that notion is at the center of egoism: I do what I want to do in order to increase my own happiness, my own pleasure” (Mosser, K., 2013). As long as there have been prisons there have also been politicians, judges, and courts. Many people may not believe it, but the rise of the prison population, and the current state of the criminal justice system has a lot to do with politics. First let’s define what Prison Industrial Complex (PIC) is; “is a trend that has developed over recent decades in which the state and federal government turns the managing of some of its prisons over to private corporations, the corporations then run the prisons for profit” (“Prison Industrial Complex,” n.d.). With this definition we can see the government plays a big role in how prisons are operated on an economic, social, and political scale. Prisons should be doing everything they can to rehabilitate offenders and teach them to be productive members of society, however when it comes to the corporations their goal is to make a profit. So, if they can run the prisons for less money, then more money goes in their pocket. (“Prison Industrial Complex,” n.d.). The corporations save money by spending less on food, health care services, and rehabilitation programs. They work for very little money or for nothing in some states, keeping the prison clean and running, and performing labor for entities such as the military making I.D. tags, helmets, and canteens (“Prison Industrial Complex,” n.d.). State governments sign contracts with these private corporations and agree to provide the prison beds, and to keep those beds full, and the one that are not filled the state will still pay for them. This practice has resulted in 2 million people being incarcerated by 2014 (“Prison Industrial Complex,” n.d.). The administration in these corporations are often involved in lobbying for new laws which will make incarcerating people and keeping them incarcerated easier (“Prison Industrial Complex,” n.d.). “These groups, such as American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC) and the Heritage Society consisted of conservative legislators who spent 970,000 dollars in 2010 lobbying to get these laws passed” (“Prison Industrial Complex,” n.d.). The Unites States has less than 5 percent of the world’s population, but 25 percent of the world’s prison population according to Hillary Clinton is a speech she gave at Columbia University in 2015. (Ye He Lee, M., 2015). According to the Council of Europe Annual Penal Statistics data, “the United States incarcerates 478 of every 100,000 of its citizens, that is three and half times the European rate” (Ye He Lee, M., 2015). In addition, the United States also incarcerated more people than Canada, Australia, New Zealand, and Japan who range from 51 to 192 per 100,000 people according to Ye He Lee, M., 2015. So, as we can see it doesn’t seem the state and federal government have much interest in the rehabilitation of offenders because they will not profit from it. Here is where we can apply the ethical egoism theory, the government does not gain anything if the offenders are rehabilitated, so their goal is to keep prisons full. Therefore, if they do not gain anything from rehabilitation they see it as bad, and when they gain a profit they see it as good, which is in their best interest, which is the perspective of ethical egoism.

In conclusion when we talk about mass incarceration and the prison industrial complex, we can look at many different situations. For instance, the criminal justice system is a way to keep people who commit heinous crimes off the streets. While this would fit the utilitarian theory of doing what is best for the greater number of people, if you look at it on a case by case basis, the number of people changes. In addition, as a society we have forgotten that not everyone is a murder, child molester, rapist, etc.…and each crime should be looked at on a case by case basis, and the punishment should fit the crime. Although, according to the deontology theory everyone should be treated as human and their basic needs met, we need understand that a person who sells drugs, probably should not receive the same prison sentence as someone who is a murder or child molester, but none the less afforded the same opportunities. We need to reduce the recidivism rate, and this requires more rehabilitation programs. Over the last few decades we have decided as a society we would just throw people into prisons and forget about them. This benefits no one except the large corporations who utilize the ethical egoism prospective by doing what benefits the corporation and they continue to lobby for more stringent laws, so more people can be incarcerated, so they can make a profit off the people incarcerated, even if it means using them as basically slaves to the industry.


Democracy in America, the moral failures of America (2015, July 20).

Retrieved from

Evaluate corrections officials not just state prisons (2018, February 2).

Retrieved from

Prison Industrial Complex definition, facts, and statistics (n.d.).

Retrieved from

Proposal prison reform and will provide ex-offenders better opportunities (n.d.).

Retrieved from

Texas Department of Criminal Justice Mission Statement (n.d.).

Retrieved from

The problem with recidivism and mass incarceration (n.d.).

Retrieved from

Twelve facts about incarceration and prisoners (n.d.).

Retrieved from

Yes, U.S. locks people up at a higher rate than any other country (2015, July 7).

Retrieved from

Mosser, K. (2013). Ethics and social responsibility (2nd ed.) [Electronic version]. Retrieved from

Place an Order

Plagiarism Free!

Scroll to Top