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This article was published in partnership with American Prison Writing Archive, a place where incarcerated people and prison staff can write about and document their experience.

I remember taking media ethics in college as part of my major in mass communications. I remember people saying it was one of the hardest classes because the professor almost never gave out A’s (I think I got a B+). 

But boiled down, ethics in itself isn’t tremendously hard to comprehend. Simply put, it is about the choices to do right or not.

In prison, there are two opposing views: the view of an inmate and the view of an employee of the prison. But whether you are an employee or an inmate, there are still principles of right or good conduct. 

So, let’s explore this together in the context of my prison, U.S. Penitentiary (USP) Tucson. I will use a real situation.

On July 16, 2020 during the height of the first COVID-19 crisis, USP Tucson inmates had been on lockdown for two-and-a-half weeks because the prison felt it necessary for all inmates (except workers) to stay in their cells and only be allowed out to take a shower every three days.

To argue ethics here would have been fruitless. The reason for the lockdown was to protect inmates from risk. Even if inmates were to protest the confinement, the need for safety was greater. It was, ethically speaking, the right thing to do.

But, was it ethical to have inmate workers go to work, thus exposing them to the risk of COVID-19? Was it right for a person to force inmates to work after a memo declared that ALL inmates were to be on lockdown? It may sound right if you believe that inmates have no rights and that prisons run off inmate workers, but both are incorrect.

Inmates walk into prison with some of their constitutional rights. If it were not so, prisons could simply starve them all to death. Fortunately, they can’t because cruel and unusual punishment is against the law, according to the 8th Amendment. 

Second, no prison should run exclusively off inmates. There is no such thing as, “essential inmate personnel” in a prison, including USP Tucson. If an emergency changes the normal routine of the prison, such as a riot or in this case, a pandemic, the responsibility of running the prison falls squarely on the staff. This includes the laundry, cafeteria, and any essential needs in the prison.

So, did the prison act in an ethical manner by forcing inmates to work? Was it right for staff here at USP Tucson to force inmates to work in environments such as the cafeteria, the laundry room and elsewhere that put them at great risk to contract the virus? Was it right for inmates who refused to work to be punished by being taken to solitary confinement?

During the lockdown, the safest place for inmates to be was in their cells. There, they were at the lowest risk of contracting the coronavirus because the only way an inmate in his cell (or even dorm) could contract the virus was if someone from the outside — like the staff — brought it to them.  

Knowing this, the decision to ignore the safest way to protect the inmates and force the workers into a situation with a much greater risk appears to be unethical. 

Was USP Tucson acting ethically?

If not, why did they do it?

Disclaimer: The views in this article are those of the author. Prison Journalism Project has verified the writer’s identity and basic facts such as the names of institutions mentioned.

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Frederick Mason

Frederick Mason is a writer incarcerated in Arizona. He has penned over 200 essays about prison-related topics including the COVID-19 pandemic situation.