What would you do with this ethical dilemma?

balance_scale.jpg Anthropologists will face ethical dilemmas throughout their careers, and we don’t always agree on what the right thing is. This entry is a case study of an ethical issue I had when I was doing my graduate fieldwork in a state prison almost 15 years ago.

Students: Try taking this entry into your class and discuss the choices I made and decide what you would do.

There was an inmate that I spoke with frequently over the course of my research, I’ll call him Jim. He was smart, articulate, and was serving an XX-years to life sentence for a double homicide he committed. In addition he had committed other infractions while in prison that also added time.

One day while stopping by his bunk, Jim and I began talking about his upcoming parole hearing. He was clearly depressed and stated to me several times that if he was denied parole he would kill himself. He knew that he was stuck in prison and that was not the life he wanted. I was sure he meant it. I was also sure that he was not going to get parole based on his administrative records that I had access to.

Of course, protecting his life was more important than protecting my research, but it was not so cut and dried. Remember that we are talking about a prison here, and as Goffman taught us about total institutions, the rules we take for granted outside of a prison are completely different inside a prison. Here are two big problems:

1 – I had promised anonymity to all my participants that nothing we discussed would ever be provided back to the administration. But in this case, would keeping the confidence result in him killing himself when he in fact needed help immediately?

2 – Lets say I reported it to the administration. Yes, he might be placed on a suicide watch, and in a prison that is little better than solitary confinement. To make matters worse, an inmate that is exhibiting suicidal behavior before a parole board hearing is not going to make parole. So telling admin about his psychological state would pretty much put the final nail in coffin of his already tiny chance at parole.

I had spent enough time at the prison by now to know that while the administration would take some kind of action – even if of dubious value – and it would be bad for Jim. It would go in his record, and at all the following hearings his mental state could be called into question. I have no mental heath expertise of any kind. I was not qualified to make any kind of diagnosis if his situation really was that dire or not and I certainly couldn’t counsel him. I had always been told that if someone you knew talked about suicide you didn’t pause to give it much thought, you got them professional help and fast.

So, if I say something to admin, they put him into some form of protective custody. It also insures his parole denial, labels him a mental health case and a danger to himself. He has already said he would kill himself if denied parole. Breaking confidence and telling admin insures he won’t make parole… would he kill himself then?

If I don’t say anything he won’t get the help he needs, and since I am pretty sure (but of course I cannot say with certainty) that he won’t get parole… will Jim kill himself?

What would you do?

My Choice
In the end, after a lot of sleepless time, I left the choice with Jim and never said anything about it. He was stuck there, mostly likely for life. To me it seemed that to report his mental state would close opportunities in the future. Since I knew that reporting it would completely close his parole chances, however slim, I chose the option I felt left him with the most control of his own life. It was not my place to decide what was the best option. He was most likely going to be in prison the rest of his with very few options for personal control of his destiny, so I chose to not step in.

My fieldwork ended before his parole hearing. Because of the nature of the fieldwork I was doing, I closed all contact the participants in my project, Admin and inmate alike.

I never tried to find out what happened to him.


2 thoughts on “What would you do with this ethical dilemma?

  1. You did the right thing. You protected his privacy, let him have even the slim chance for parole, allowed him to make his choice and let the decision rest in his hands. I suspect he did or at least tried to kill himself. Knowing he was stuck in there the rest of his life would have promted a bid for freedom.

  2. Larry

    Prison inmates are very good at manipulating people and lie all the time in attempts to achieve specific goals, even when exhibiting suicidal behavior. Inmates have little else to do and often play these type of games to escape boredom.

    It’s very likely the inmate was simply trying to entertain himself as well as the researcher, while also trying to continue the relationship/conversation as long as possible, in hope that the relationship/conversation would eventually become beneficial to him.

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