Nurses are not liable for injustice, but we are responsible. We are better equipped as a group to bring about social justice than as individuals.67
An argument that racism in nursing prevents the profession from addressing social and political determinants of health, including the harm to health caused by policing and prisons.
Shaped by gender bias, racism, and class oppression, policing and incarceration cumulate in poorer individual health outcomes, family disintegration, and threats to community and public health that are disproportionately experienced by groups of people already marginalized.
Nursing has a long history of participation in carceral systems beyond prisons, such as eugenic control of reproduction,11 intrusive public health monitoring, and involuntary psychiatric treatment.12
But nursing has also long participated in action for social justice13 and is positioned now to address social harms within and outside of carceral systems—including the gendered, raced, and classed experiences of economic deprivation, barriers to services, deepening emotional and mental health difficulties, and increasing exposures to violence wrought by the pandemic—through abolitionist practice.
Nursing cannot critique carceral systems while clinging to racist narratives of personal responsibility and “choice,” and without understanding structures of oppression.
Consider a passage in Dorothy Roberts' canonical text on racism and state reproductive control, Killing the Black Body. She describes how Shirley Brown, a White nurse in South Carolina, spearheaded a campaign in the 1980s to criminalize and force treatment on Black women for prenatal drug use.48 Now, half of US states label and prosecute drug use in pregnancy as child abuse and require health professionals report suspicions about it to child welfare agencies.
Nurses must participate in redefining criminalization, starting with calls to completely decriminalize substance use and sex work, and to divert people with serious mental illness from incarceration at every opportunity.
The patient-centered, justice-oriented, and practical orientation of nursing positions the discipline to adopt an abolitionist approach. Abolitionist practice demands reckoning with the social forces of colonialism, racism, and misogyny not only in prisons but also in nursing itself and of nursing's role in prisons and policing.
Nurses can seek to practice in ways that recognize our connectedness and are restorative to communities experiencing marginalization and criminalization.
Nurses must not only understand the evidence behind them and support their implementation but also recognize the limitations of harm reduction
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