Ethical Issues in the United States, Irish, Scottish and British Prison Systems

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Ethical Issues in the

United States, Irish, Scottish and British Prison Systems

Heather Ferguson

LEJA 508


The United States saw a flood of immigrants from all of Europe. Correctional systems followed those who came from both sides. Over the next couple of hundred years, the systems changed from parallel to almost complete opposites. This paper examines the differences that have come between the United States correctional system and those of Ireland, Scotland and the United Kingdom.

Table of Contents
I. Introduction 4
II. United States Correctional Facilities and Issues 5-10
III. Ireland’s Correctional Facilities and Issues 10-11
IV. Scotland’s Correctional Facilities and Issues 11-15
V. United Kingdom’s Correctional Facilities and Issues 15-16
VI. Conclusion 16-18
Bibliography 19-21


In a world of diverse ethnicities and cultural practices, there are few commonalities one can find. Whether it is in the methods of teaching right and wrong to young children, punishing offenders, or dealing with ethical issues, one is sure to be perplexed by the methods of other countries when there is little knowledge of the methods used.

The law enforcement network is centrally focused around the British system of law and order with the officers protecting the innocent from offenders, offenders from offenders and other officers from the harm of an offender. However, the lines between an officer and an offender can be blurred if circumstances allow indiscretions to transpire.

It has occurred in many regions and facets of the criminal justice system. This paper will be discussing how the correctional facilities in three countries and the officers ordered to maintain the dignity of their countries and their personal dignity can sometimes become as dirty as those housed in the prison institution. This paper will go from the cleanest of the four to the grimiest of the lot. These countries range from the United States correctional facilities to Ireland’s somewhat tarnished record of issues to Scotland’s deplorable prison system and the United Kingdom’s institutions needing improvement according to the Ministry of Justice.

The United States’ Correctional Facilities and Issues

The United States prison system has evolved from punitive to rehabilitation and restorative while still having the highest imprisonment rate in the world. Though the basic structure of prisons is relatively uniform across the nation, there are still instances of cruelty towards inmates. One example of such cruelty is an occurrence in Arizona where an inmate was attacked by other inmates. The prison mentality has intrigued many psychologists and sociologists who have conducted experiments to try understanding the shift from civilian mentality to that of an imprisoned person and how quickly the shift can affect other parts of the person’s well being. The most famous of these experiments was the Stanford Prison Experiment which will be discussed later in this section.

In Arizona, it took an hour for guards to assist an inmate who was being assaulted during lunch by other inmates. The rationale given was the camera was not hooked up to the CC system in the prison. Sheriff Joe Arpaio said “What can we do? How are we supposed to watch everyone all the time? This is one incident out of the 300 people who come in everyday and the 1.5 million a year. There is just no way we can watch them all.”

The inmate who was beaten was thought to be an alleged child molester when the truth was he was in for a DUI offense. This was the only reason given for his beating. He sustained many broken facial bones and all those involved have been prosecuted (MSNBC news). Is this what one can expect if they are arrested for child molestation? To be beaten bloody and have broken bones without officers coming to assist you for an hour if other inmates are blocking the door?

By leaving the inmates in a room alone with other violent offenders, a victim has a very slim chance of surviving the beating, if they survive at all. Sheriff Arpaio’s callous remark shows some ‘higher-ups’ don’t care what occurs in the prison as long as there is room for another inmate at the end of the day. The oath one takes when becoming a correctional officer should factor into all duties performed in and out of the complex, not when one finds it convenient for them so they can still be looked upon as ‘one of the guys’ in their department or on their shift.


This oath is looked upon as one’s word. If one turns the other way because it suits the superior officer, then their word is no better than the word of a cheat or a coward.

Now, some may think this approach to the United States correctional facilities may be harsher than some might like, however it follows Kant’s theory of deontology. One must perform their duty for the good of mankind. By not reporting what occurs on a watch, one is only performing half of the job and should be held ethically responsible for the circumstances of their negligence.

The Stanford Prison Experiment, conducted in 1973, still resonates with the prison culture today because those who were labeled as ‘guards’ showed brute force that fostered a psychological break in the ‘inmates’ which caused the experiment to be stopped after a few days. The experiment was stopped because the facilitators saw the effects the guard behavior was having on the inmates; in a true prison setting, the process of guard- inmate relations cannot be stopped because an inmate becomes physiologically impaired and psychologically depressed. The experiment has taught the outside world and the prison culture many important facets but five significant points stick out to this researcher. The points are:

  1. The prison environments are themselves powerful, potentially damaging situations whose negative psychological effects must be taken seriously, carefully evaluated, and purposefully regulated and controlled. When appropriate, these environments must be changed or in extreme cases eliminated. The SPE exemplified how situations can easily overwhelm the psychological equilibrium of the normal society and can unexpectedly create a cruel approach that can only be deemed ‘role appropriate’ by those in the situation.

  2. Even a minimalist prison can become painful and powerful (Clements). None of the ‘guards’ in the experiment were armed yet they responded or participated in ways that would be considered mistreatment by outside standards. The ‘role appropriate’ behavior quickly went from that of a participant in a social experiment to that of a feared, sadistic tormentor.

  3. If situations matter and people can be transformed by them when they go into prisons, they matter equally, if not more, when they come out of prison. This suggests the programs being utilized to change the prisoner don’t apply to all the situations the ex-prisoner may run into after their release from a facility. By not giving the released person the tools to succeed in the outside world, the chance of them returning to the criminal lifestyle is increased exponentially over those who are given training and counseling before and after release.

  4. Even though the experiment conducted several personality tests, there is no way to predict the behaviors of the guards and inmates (Haney et al.). The researchers involved in the experiment could not tap into the reactions in the situations that were revealing themselves in front of them (Millgram). There is no consistent way to predict the likelihood of recidivism or repeated violent behavior (Monahan & Klassen).

  5. Genuine and meaningful prison and criminal justice reform is unlikely to be advanced by persons who are themselves ‘captives’ of powerful correctional environments (Haney and Zimbardo). Another part of this is the belief that a person with good intentions is not enough the change the prison structure but the structure must be willing to improve prison life (Haney & Pettigrew).

These five points drew upon the six days the experiment was conducted. The startling results lead to massive changes in the experimental process and changed the focus of punitive and punishing to the more accepted rehabilitative and restorative form that it is today. The experiment also drew upon Haney and Zimbardo’s research that harmful structures do not require ill-intentioned persons to inflict psychological damage on those they watch over and can induce good people with the best of intentions to engage in evil deeds. Another influence on the experiment was the belief that ‘mechanisms of moral disengagement’ distance people from the ethical ambiguity of their actions and the painful consequences of their deeds, and they may operate with destructive force in many legal and institutional contexts, facilitating cruel and unusual treatment by otherwise caring and law-abiding persons ( Bandura; Browning; Gibson; Haney).

The United States prison system has had many issues in during the development of the nation, yet the system continues to grow and cultivate new forms of prison reorganization as the outlook of the citizens continues to become more policy driven than in previous years.

Ireland’s Correctional Facilities and Issues

Being a country of such beauty and some of the friendliest people in the world, Ireland’s prison system falls between the best and the worst systems researched for this assignment. While most correctional systems have numerous faults, Ireland’s main issues are with their correctional prison officers and not with most criminals housed in the facilities.

On March 15th, 2007, three prison officers were being questioned as part of an investigation into the smuggling of contraband into prisons. The three officers, who work in two prisons in Dublin, were arrested at their homes in County Dublin. The investigation is being carried out by the National Bureau of Criminal Investigation into the smuggling of drugs, phones, alcohol and prescription drugs into the prisons (RTE news, 2007).

The oath printed above was issued by the International Association of Chiefs of Police. The three prison officers questioned turned their backs upon their departments and on their integrity. Three criminals within a prison system are three too many. These employees worked at Mountjoy and Wheatfield prisons. Mountjoy is the Ireland Prison Service’s oldest prison located in Dublin. Mountjoy opened in 1850 and houses 454 prisoners after the closure of one of its wings. Wheatfield Prison, also in Dublin, was opened in 1985 and houses up to 368 male prisoners age 17 and above.

Ireland’s approach to corrections seems to house to ideals of Bentham’s teleological theory. The greater good may cause some pain to the minority but as long as the majority is satisfied, all is right with the world and its contents.

One bit of information found while researching the prison systems that was of interest to some correctional officers in the U.S. is Ireland’s method of separating, or not separating in some cases, prisoners in the facilities. In the Irish prison system on is considered an adult after the age of 17 and a minor can be considered an adult, if their offense is serious enough, at the age of 16. In the U.S., those under the age of 18 would never be housed with those over the age of 18.

Scotland’s Correctional Facilities and Issues

The conditions in the above two systems seem like crown jewels compared to the atrocious conditions in the Scottish Prison Service over the past few years. One would think since Scotland only has fifteen prisons in the whole country, all would be in excellent measure and would be shining examples of how to run a prison effectively. However, in the matter of three of the fifteen prisons, conditions are either so disgraceful or disturbing; most would never apply for the jobs offered by the system. These prisons are HMP Kilmarnock, HMP Polmont and Barlinnie Prison. All are in close proximity to each other and it seems the influence from one may have transferred from one to another. According to the Scottish Prison Service, the facilities have few problems; but when the prisons were checked through other sources such as BBC World News and other organizations, one finds the stories to be quite different.

HMP (Her Majesty’s Prison) Kilmarnock in Bowhouse, East Ayrshire near Glasgow, Scotland is one of the upper aged prisons in the country. Kilmarnock is often dubbed the Hurlford Hilton by the media for its dorm style living arrangements and seemingly lax approach to watching inmates. Opened in March of 1999, Kilmarnock can house a maximum of 694 men over the age of 21. Kilmarnock has the privilege, or curse, of being the only privately run prison in Scotland with the most deplorable conditions in the Scottish Prison Service. By using the term ‘curse’, one only needs to look at some of the complaints against the prison itself:

  • In 2005, three members of the staff were removed from normal duties after an undercover BBC investigation claimed they ignored heroin abuse and failed to monitor vulnerable inmates. Heroin use was ignored for fears of fines that would be applied to the security firm.

  • In 2005, a senior manager was stabbed by inmates. It is considered ‘normal’ for inmates to carry knives.

  • In 2004, a teen with learning disabilities was raped.

  • In 2004, two officers were charged with sexually assaulting a female staff member and a manager was dismissed for sexual harassment.

  • Since the prison opened, seven men have killed themselves.

After reading of such despicable conditions, one would beg to ask why this facility is still running. For a privately run facility, these conditions are purely unacceptable to most humans. Just because someone is incarcerated, they are still of the human race and should be treated as such. This is not the worst of the worst however. HMYOI (Her Majesty’s Youth Offender Institution) Polmont’s practices are ludicrous to an adult mindset.

HMYOI Polmont is the largest Youth Offender Institution in Scotland. This institution is located in Reddingmuirhead in the Falkirk region outside Glasgow. It is currently designed to hold up to 454 inmates between the ages of 16 and 21. These men are subjected to inhumane living conditions such as:

  • Those who do not have adequate sanitation in their cells are forced to use buckets and/or bed pans in the corner.

  • Not emptied on a regular basis.

  • Numerous skin infections are reported yearly because of this practice.

In the U.S., conditions such as these would close down a facility and have hundreds, if not thousands, of lawsuits in the warden’s lap by the end of the week.

Last but not least, Barlinnie Prison in Glasgow has had some trouble of its own recently. In 2006, a criminal lawyer was caught bringing in heroin and Diazepam, an amnesia inducing drug much like Valium, with a street value of $3,187 (US dollars) through cigarette packets that had been opened and resealed into Barlinnie Prison. DNA was taken from the adhesive tape and a package of cigarettes still containing heroin. A fellow inmate gave the tip off to guards who neglected to check the lawyer. Special screenings prior to one-on-one meetings between lawyers and inmates were then put in place to apprehend the lawyer involved. When apprehended the lawyer had in his possession a cigarette packet containing 158 Diazepam pills and 14 grams of Class A heroin. Obvious by the amounts, the drugs were to be distributed throughout the prison and not for personal use (BBC News).

Upon further research into the Scottish Prison Service, it was found that nine deaths have occurred this year alone. While the natures of the deaths were unavailable to the researcher it can be noted that four of the nine deaths took place at the same prison in five-months time. Two more of the nine also occurred at the same location in a period of two months. This would be a major issue to those involved in the legal departments of these facilities. The age range for those killed is 22-45 years of age (Scottish Prison Service website).

Scotland’s approach to corrections is much like Ireland’s; though the Scottish system seems to be the more severe of the two. However, the Scottish law enforcement system is closely tied the British system of law enforcement which will be discussed in the next section.

United Kingdom’s Facilities and Issues

“Punishment is not for revenge, but to lessen crime and reform the criminal” – Elizabeth Fry

The British prison system is one of the oldest in the world when first organized by Robert Peel in the early and mid-1800’s. Yet over the past few years, the system has reverted back in the ways it administers punishment to the incarcerated.

In the December 11, 2006 issue of New Statesmen Magazine, it was reported that short-termers have to be whisked from prison to prison find cells, thus denying them the chance of rehabilitation, while long-termers face sentences that offer little hope of redemption this side of the grave. The article further explains the gross injustice towards the nation’s youth offenders following the publicized arrest of a juvenile who was on day-release. With the re-arrest of the juvenile, all juveniles who were compliant with the day-release and vocational programs were then notified of the indefinite suspension of such programs that were endorsing personal and possible professional growth in otherwise disadvantaged youths.

Another disturbing trend the British penal system was the announcing the inspection schedule of the prison for two years at a time. This schedule notifies each prison of the specific date in which the inspector will be visiting the prison. This practice would never occur in the United States because the application of an announced schedule would give a false reporting of the prison conditions that are present the other 364 days of the year. By announcing the dates two years in advance, this gives each prison a chance to ‘clean up their act’ before the inspector arrives.

Even with the schedule of inspections being announced, 20 prisons were still requiring development. Though this is only 15% of all the prisons in the United Kingdom, this is still 20 too many. The country’s inspectors have written reports to enumerate the overhauls needed to bring the institutions up to a level where they will be considered examples for an exceptionally run system rather than that of a network of unpardonable living conditions even for those in the system.

Literary Review

In the methodology of comparative studies this author was easily able to find journal articles that reviewed a state to state comparison within the United States but only one article pertaining to the comparison of two countries other than the United States. The analysis in the article was limited to one of the penal systems included in my article.

In this understudied field, no journal articles were located in which four countries were compared and contrasted in a scrutiny of the ethical mistreatments and misconducts of the prison population. Even though with this notable shortfall of directly comparable data, the following literary reviews are still rich with points of comparison and contrast to each of the four countries, singly and collectively, in my work. As the author of this work, the following two reviews are presented for your further understanding in the need for higher ethical standards in international prison systems.

The article referencing the prison study done by the British Psychological Society and conducted by Stephen Reicher of the University of St. Andrews and S. Alexander Haslam of the University of Exeter exemplifies the conditions of the prison mentality seen in guards and inmates in a simulation much like that of the Stanford Prison Experiment conducted by Zimbardo in 1971 at Stanford University. The British study concluded the need to look beyond individuals but rather there is a need to analyze group relations and processes. The British study also contends the need for an understanding of the norms and values associated with a group under examination while The Stanford Prison Experiment only focused on the roles given to each participant.

The study between the English and Norwegian prisons conducted by Leonard D. Baer and Bodil Ravneberg sited the difference between the landscape of the countries prisons. The English prisons had very little to remind prison psychologists they were inside while the Norwegian prisons caused the psychologist to look outside because they did not feel as if they were in an institution. The authors of the study acknowledged the studies and the analysis were only based upon the psychologist’s personal inferences of the institutions involved. This brings the study into a different light because the study becomes one-sided due to this acknowledgement.

In all the United States correctional system is the best, albeit a few blemishes, out of the three countries discussed. The U.S. also has the ACLU and other similar organizations watching every move that is made in all correctional facilities in the country. Ireland and Scotland seem to have no such agencies, though they do have prison inspectors. The question can be raised though: How much can one person see during inspection times? Is it possible for all prisons to be perfect 100% of the time or are they perfect when the inspector is coming? More likely than not, they will not see everything that occurs inside the facility or to the prisoners. After all they are only one person.

Scotland and Ireland are working under the British law system that is mainly focused on punishment and is painstakingly, slowly moving towards the rehabilitation perspective the U.S. system currently works under. If agencies such as the ACLU worked in European countries, less and less issues would arise.

This researcher believed the U.S. correctional system was doomed until reading of the Irish, Scottish and British correctional systems and the issues involved in those systems. The U.S. looks at the inmates as humans who are still members of society even though they are incarcerated. Ireland and Scotland look upon the prisoners as criminals who will never change their ways and there is no way to change them. Somewhere down the line the penal system in Britain became lackadaisical in the accepted rehabilitative and restorative practice and instead regressing to the punitive measures utilized in the 1800s and early 1900s. Let them fade into the background of society to be forgotten about until the next arrest. This outlook is bleak for those in that system but until someone changes it for the better, circumstances will remain the same.


Baer, L.D. and B. Ravneberg. The outside and inside of Norwegian and English Prisons. Geografiska Annaier: Series B. Human Geography. Vol. 90 No. 2 2008.

Bandura, A. Mechanisms of moral disengagement. Origins of terrorism: Psychologies, ideologies, theologies, states of mind. New York: Cambridge University Press. 161-191. 1989.

BBC News. Lawyer supplied drugs to prisoners. 6/2/2006.

Browning, C. Ordinary men: Reserve Police Battalion 101 and the final solution in Poland. New York: Harper Perennial. 1993.

Chesshyre, R. Addicted to punishment. New Statesmen. December 2006.

Clements, C. Crowded prisons: A review of psychological and environmental effects. Law and Human Behavior. 3, 217-225. 1979.

Clements, C. Towards an objective approach to offender classification. Law and Psychology Review. Vol. 9, 45-55. 1985.

Gibson, J. Training good people to inflict pain: State terror and social learning. Journal of Humanistic Psychology. Vol. 37, 72-87. 1991.

Haney, C. Limits to prison pain: Modern psychological theory and rational crime control policy. Washington, DC: American Psychological Association. 1998.

Haney, C. Psychological theory and criminal justice policy: Law and psychology in the “Formative Era”. Law and Human Behavior. Vol. 6,191-235. 1982.

Haney, C. Psychology and the limits to prison pain: Confronting the coming crisis in Eighth Amendment law. Psychology, Public Policy, and Law. Vol. 3. 499-588. 1997.

Haney, C. Violence and the capital jury: Mechanisms of moral disengagement and the impulse to condemn to death. Stanford Law Review. Vol. 46. 1447-1486. 1997.

Haney, C. Banks, W., & Zimbardo, P. Interpersonal dynamics in a stimulated prison. International Journal of Criminology and Penology. Vol. 1. 69-97. 1973.

Haney, C. & Pettigrew, T. Civil rights and institutional law: The role of social psychology in judicial implementation. Journal of Community Psychology. Vol. 14. 267-277. 1986.

Irish Prison Service. Irish Prison Service history.

Millgram, S. Obedience to authority: An experiment view. New York: Harper & Row. 1974.

Ministry of Justice. Announced Inspection Schedule.

Ministry of Justice. Prison quarterly ratings. Quarter 3, 2008/2009.

RTE News. Gardai arrest three prison officers. 6/15/07.

Reicher, Stephen and S. Alexander Haslam. Rethinking the psychology of tyranny: The BBC prison study. British journal of Social Psychology. Vol. 45. 2006.

Scottish Prison Service. Scottish prison map.

Wikipedia. Scottish prisons- Kilmarnock.

Wikipedia. Scottish prisons- Polmont.

Heather Ferguson is a second year Master’s student in Western Illinois University’s Department of Sociology. Heather completed her Bachelor’s program at Western Illinois University in May 2008. She has a family history of law enforcement and military involvement. Heather plans to go into a juvenile counseling position following the completion of her Master’s Degree program. She currently resides in Macomb, IL .
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