In prisons and jails throughout the United States, mechanical restraints have arguably been critically instrumental in controlling general population inmates deemed a threat to the safety and wellbeing of themselves and/or others. Although guidelines established by the American Correctional Association dictate that custodial devices must be employed as time-limited harm prevention measures, research indicates that convicts are increasingly confined by these apparatuses for punitive purposes and prolonged periods. Ethical concerns are raised by documented physical and mental health effects stemming from their use on inmates.
Overview of Correctional Mechanical Restraints
Designed to restrict various degrees of mobility, mechanical restraints are principally intended to aid correctional staff in conducting cell extractions, preventing imminent harm to an inmate or others, and hindering escapes. The most commonly employed control devices include handcuffs, straps, leg shackles, and waist chains. Other apparatuses, such as the restraint chair and the restraint board, are intended to completely immobilize individuals in custody.
Documented physical health effects experienced by restrained incarcerates include a range of skin irritations, bruises, lesions, blood clots, and fractured or broken bones. Although a number of jurisdictions have limited or abolished the use of mechanical restraints, on pregnant inmates, reports of severe injuries on incarcerated mothers and their infants continue to emerge. Preexisting health concerns, such as diabetes, hypertension, and a history of drug abuse, combined with the confining effects of restraints have precipitated a number of in-custody deaths. Inadequately monitored convicts may also suffer from dehydration and asphyxia (i.e., obstructed breathing), which have been prominent contributing factors in restraint-related fatalities. Precise estimates of inmate injuries and deaths occurring during the application of or prolonged containment in control devices remain undetermined.
Extant findings on the mental health effects on inmates placed in these apparatuses are relatively scant. Some generalizability concerns exist because the research has largely been conducted within behavioral health settings where a more rigid standard of care is required and the restrained individual’s overall health is more attentively monitored. Nevertheless, incarcerates incapacitated by control devices may experience panic, depression, insomnia, delusion, an inability to control anger, and an impaired sense of autonomy.
Argument in Favor of Correctional Mechanical Restraint Use
Although some assert that more clearly defined and universally applied guidelines on mechanical restraint deployment are needed, prevailing sentiment among proponents is that these control devices are imperative to effectively operating prisons and jails. Indeed, correctional administrators and officers have indicated overwhelming support for this practice. Those who assert the necessity of mechanical restraints cite the high incident rates of self-inflicted injuries and suicide attempts among inmates. Likewise, the persistent threat of violence perpetuated by convicts on correctional staff and fellow incarcerates remains a troubling challenge for those who oversee these volatile milieus. At the core of the argument supporting mechanical restraint use is the contention that these control devices serve the paramount penological objective of ensuring the safety of individuals in custody, prison and jail staff, and ultimately, society.
The rationale underlying the expressed desire to protect as many citizens as possible chiefly reflects principles rooted in the ethical school of thought known as consequentialism. As the term suggests, this philosophical approach proposes that one consider all potential outcomes when deliberating moral dilemmas. Specifically, the reasoning employed by mechanical restraint proponents aligns with a variant of consequentialism known as utilitarianism. This moral logic entails employing the greatest happiness principle articulated by British philosopher John Stuart Mill, which requires one to make decisions according to that which will achieve the greatest good for the greatest number of people. Moreover, the overarching sense of obligation to ensure the safety of the citizenry aligns closely with the ethical philosophy of formalism and its variant Kantian deontology. Unlike consequentialism, formalism focuses strictly on one’s motives. German philosopher Immanuel Kant proposed that there are categorical imperatives or absolute moral laws (e.g., never kill or never lie) to which one must adhere regardless of the outcome.
Argument Against Correctional Mechanical Restraint Use
As a growing number of reports reveal restraint-related injuries and deaths, opponents are increasingly calling for limits to or abolishment of this correctional practice. Indeed, a number of correctional health care professionals, human rights activists, researchers, and concerned others share the contention that a more therapeutic alternative to mechanical restraints is needed. Some assert that mechanical restraints, particularly when applied for punitive purposes and prolonged periods, represent a trend in risk-based correctional policies that degrades the humanity of all individuals. Recent opposition raised toward mechanical restraint use proposes the adoption of a care ethics approach. Developed by Nel Noddings and Carol Gilligan, the principles of care (e.g., empathy and compassion) are frequently employed in a range of environs in which individuals who are psychiatrically disordered or who are otherwise disruptive are likely to be encountered. Contrary to rigid, often inadequate guidelines, care encourages individuals to develop a regard for the wellbeing of others.
The underlying ethic of care principles reflects the moral philosophy known as Aristotelian virtue. Delineated by Greek philosopher Aristotle in his seminal work, Nichomachean Ethics, this moral logic suggests that, rather than relying on prescribed duties or weighing consequences, one should cultivate habits of character. Aristotle contended that humans are social beings. Thus, in order to foster character, individuals must routinely practice virtues such as courage, empathy, tolerance, and compassion in their interactions with one another. In doing so, they foster a sense of connectedness that promotes human flourishing. As such, Aristotle asserted that prospects for excellence are made realizable for all.
The ongoing ethical debate surrounding custodial mechanical restraint use suggests the need for reforms that more readily address the needs of convicts, correctional administrators and staff, and the greater society. While some contend that stricter guidelines on the deployment of restraints are needed, others assert that nothing short of abolishment is acceptable. What remains to be determined is whether or not these correctional policy reforms will promote genuine safety and well-being for all concerned.
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