Prison or no right to healthcare: Take your pick

Ava Glazier

Welcome to my final catalyst conference project! This project focuses on the right to healthcare for Americans, and what that means for those in the general population compared to the prison population. Once you have gone through and learn more about the topic I would love to hear what you think so be sure to click the final link!

Who has access to healthcare in America?

40 million citizens in the general U.S. population currently do not have the insurance necessary to access even minimally adequate healthcare. There are public insurance and free care programs in place to try and provide access to the population who cannot afford it. These programs, however, only provide a patch-work system for certain segments of the population (such as the elderly or the very poor) and only for limited services. There is no right to healthcare under U.S. laws. Ultimately this results in the deprivation of healthcare for millions of people; both employed and unemployed.

Prisoners have a right to healthcare?

The right to healthcare in the United States is not guaranteed for citizens but surprisingly it is for the prison population. The eighth amendment to the U.S. Constitution prohibits “cruel and unusual punishment.”Courts have interpreted this, within the U.S. correction systems, to mean that a lack of healthcare constitutes cruel and unusual punishment. This is a controversial topic because those in the prison population who have been convicted of a crime are guaranteed lifesaving care whereas others in the general population are not.

So what is this about?

In this country, healthcare is viewed as a privilege. Millions of citizens continue to suffer silently and die from preventable diseases because they did not have the means to pay for medical assessment and/or necessary treatments. This is in comparison to the prison population. Although the healthcare services provided in prisons are certainly not luxurious, inmates are entitled to a basic level of healthcare that the general population is not. As a result, prisoners may have a greater chance of a longer life than those on the outside do. To put this in the extreme, an inmate convicted of murder experiencing heart failure would be provided treatment with whereas an uninsured single mother who could not afford medical care would not have access to the same treatment. The purpose of this project is to investigate whether or not it is ethical to provide healthcare to prisoners when law-abiding citizens of the general population are being deprived of this fundamental right.

The Questions

Should all Americans have equal access to healthcare regardless of whether they can pay for insurance?

Is it ethical to provide prisoners with healthcare when the general population does not have the same access?

The Debate

A Case Study for Perspective

A young man who was recently incarcerated was brought to a hospital after getting into a fight. His injuries led to a CT scan, which revealed two aneurysms. The doctors determined that without intervention he would die, so they scheduled surgery within the coming weeks. The man was released from prison one week later. When he showed up at the hospital for pre-op scans, he was turned away. He was told that since he was released from prison, and did not have insurance to pay for the operation, they would not be able to operate. Not knowing what else to do, he went to a department store and pocketed some moisturizing cream, making sure that the security noticed. He was promptly put back into prison and received the life-saving surgery.

What do you think about this case? Post your thoughts below

The Ethics: Should Prisoners have access to healthcare when the general population does not have the right to healthcare?

Throughout the semester, the students in the bioethics GOA have been analyzing case studies using the 4 principles of bioethics:

An interview with bioethicist Alexandra Glazier

Diving into the Principles:


Justice is at the heart of this question. In a perfect world, everyone would have access to adequate healthcare. We wouldn’t be discussing whether or not it is ethical to give prisoners healthcare over the general population because everyone would receive healthcare regardless of their social economic status. But, we are in America and this is most definitely not a perfect world. So, in a system of limited resources, who is it most important to give access to healthcare to? Probably not those who have been convicted of crime. Justice is not being served in this situation.


Do no harm, pledges every single doctor. Unfortunately what they don’t tell you is that refusing to provide care can be just as harmful, if not worse. In a hospital ER, if you are stable or not experiencing a medical emergency, you will be turned away if you cannot pay. Or if your insurance doesn’t cover the cost of needed chemotherapy, you are denied care. This is the way the American health system functions. Yet if an individual does harm to others, they are somehow given this right to the access of healthcare. The principle of non-maleficence is not as present in this question as it is in others, however it is important to understand that harm is being done to those in the general public who did not harm others.


It is quite clear in this instance that the benefit and advantage of healthcare is not being provided to all. Now, this should not be a question of who is deserving enough to get this privilege, however without the funds to allow everyone the access to healthcare, we are at an impasse. How do we decide who is good enough to receive this?


Once an individual is incarcerated, their autonomy is stripped away. The minute they set foot in prison, they are deprived of their right to freedom. The principle of autonomy doesn’t play too much of a role in this topic, as almost everyone consents to basic healthcare and the issue at hand is who gets access to it, not whether decision-making and consent are obtained in an ethical way.  

Associated Sustainable Development Goals

Goal 3: Access to Healthcare relates to the goal of good health and wellbeing because it is unlikely that an individual will be able to stay healthy without any healthcare and intervention. Within prisons, there are many healthcare issues that arise when questioning what is actually available, however, they ideally do have access to this.

Goal 11: Reduced Inequalities directly pertains to this topic, but in somewhat of a strange way. The argument here is that prisoners have it better than certain people in the general population, as it is required that they receive some sort of healthcare. In this sense there is a huge inequality between those who can’t afford healthcare and prisoners who have presumably done wrong but still get this privilege. On the other hand, the healthcare in the prison system is pretty bad and for those who can afford healthcare outside of prison they are at a huge advantage.

Works Cited


Thanks for going through and taking the time to look at my project! Let me know what you think in the comments 🙂
Share this project
  1. April 25, 2019 by RJ

    What an informative paper!!

  2. April 26, 2019 by Anjali.Mirmira

    Hi Ava! What an interesting project. I had never thought about the issue of prisoners receiving healthcare to be unjust, but once I read your page, I can totally understand the underlying bioethical issue. In terms of taking action on this issue, my question would be, what control do legislators have on this matter? Is there a way to redirect funding to ensure that more free citizens receive healthcare, or do we have to completely scrap the system?

    • April 30, 2019 by Ava.Glazier

      Hi Anjali – This is such a great question. Unfortunately, I do not know a lot about how we can redirect funding to ensure that more free citizens receive healthcare, however, I do know that the US’s healthcare system is pretty bad in comparison to Europes so in this context there is a lot that we can learn from them.

  3. April 26, 2019 by Erica

    Hi Ava! I didn’t know about this until I saw your post and I am fascinated! I had watched TV shows about people wanting to go back to prison in order to attain healthcare (I didn’t really believe that until now) but I’m still not quite sure how that works. Are the prisoners to pay for the services afterwards or are they covered by the government? Along those lines, I would agree that essentially “giving” healthcare to prisoners and not to normal civilians is wrong, but how are we to correct that? I’m not super educated about healthcare but don’t we have a general system (Medicaid-esqe programs) that are an attempt to do so? What do you think we can be doing better?

  4. April 29, 2019 by Alison.Lu

    Hi Ava,

    Great job! I had no idea that people would go to jail just to get healthcare and it really does make me wonder why our society is like that…. Is there anything that the federal government is doing or something you think they should be doing to work on this?

  5. April 29, 2019 by Aminah.Asghar

    Hey Ava,
    This topic is so interesting! I also read a little about this topic while conducting research for my project and was really shocked at how widespread this practice really is.

  6. April 30, 2019 by Haley

    I learned something new! Thanks for sharing!

  7. May 04, 2019 by Daisy.Huang

    Hi Ava! Really great job on your project–your topic area is super interesting and I learned quite a bit about prison healthcare from it. I was wondering that now we understand the issue, if there’s anything we can do to help fix the system.

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