Cruel and Unusual Punishment

“Prison should not actually do things that are knowingly going to make people worse,” replied Hank Greely when asked about the ethical issues of solitary confinement. Greely, who is director of the Center for Law and the Biosciences at Stanford University, pointed out that the United States houses 25 percent of the world’s prison population. “So in that sense,” he quipped, “we’re number one!” Sitting alongside a panel of experts, Greely was one of three speakers to open up the discussion of mental health and safety for prison inmates at the annual International Neuroethics Society (INS) meeting.

From left to right: Hank Greely, Alan Leshner, James Blair, James Giordano. Photo credit: Gillian Hue

From left to right: Hank Greely, Alan Leshner, James Blair, James Giordano. Photo credit: Gillian Hue

The panel addressed prison system policy in the U.S., as well as the world’s growing mental health crisis. Alan Leshner, chief executive officer emeritus of the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS) and a Dana Alliance member, introduced the topic as a “criminal-justice issue, a human-rights issue, and a neuroethics issue of the highest order.” The prevalence of mental illness in criminal justice is tremendous, he added, and rhetorically asked if it can be seen as a direct consequence of incarceration.

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Drug Addiction and Incarceration

Last month, at a Capitol Hill briefing in Washington, D.C., experts gathered to address the surge in opioid drug abuse and fatal overdoses among people of all demographics within the United States. According to a 2010 study done by the Centers for Disease Control, prescription opioids accounted for 60% of overdose deaths, a statistic that has doubled in just over ten years. While there is work being done by federal and state agencies to deter future abuse of prescription painkillers, speakers of the event focused particularly on those who are imprisoned as a result of their addiction.

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