We treat everybody the same and we're really blind, just like justice should be blind. We as providers are blind so we treat everyone with the same high quality standard of care. And that's just not happening. And this is unmasking that.
Morally and ethically, what responsibilities does the government have in caring for incarcerated people?
I think that they have the same responsibility that we all do.
We know that prisons are already overcrowded. We know that it's an older, sicker population and we know there's less access to high-quality care. And so I think what has to happen, first of all, is you have to be able to translate those basic public health priorities.
I think you start by decarcerating. You look at who are the people that can be released early and focus on vulnerable populations within that group — so that you reduce prison crowding.
How do you also think about the ethics of releasing inmates and whether that is really going to make formerly incarcerated people safer when they go out into the world?
I think about it just purely from a public health perspective, so we know that the boundaries between the prison and the surrounding communities is porous to begin with. And so you really need to make sure that there's been proper testing and isolation of incarcerated people before you release them out into society or out into the community. The same thing is true with staff of the prison. The community is itself at risk — if there's an uncontrolled infection within the prison itself.
Does the fact that our prisons are overcrowded and that health care standards inside prisons are different from the outside say something about our society?
Absolutely, I think that it says something very important. It says that we've neglected this idea of justice — we've neglected the idea that everyone should have equal access to the highest possible quality of medical care. It's particularly problematic when you think about our status as a nation and our relative wealth as a nation.
What is the federal government doing during this moment, and what is it saying to you as a bioethicist?
It does seem a bit perverse for the federal government to resume executions in the middle of a pandemic while other systems throughout the world are looking at decarcerating inmates, looking at reexamination of some of their criminal justice structures in the middle of the pandemic. Our federal government is executing people and making its citizens witness to those executions while there's so many of us that are fearful of the virus. And also so many people who are out of work. So many people who are suffering otherwise and dying unnecessarily in the midst of the pandemic.