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An Important Ethical Question

Should Scientific Research be conducted on prisoners?


  1. #1 scout
    August 14, 2006

    we may as well reinstate eugenics if we take this turn.

  2. #2 Left_Wing_Fox
    August 14, 2006

    I won’t say “never”, since some research might directly benefit prisoners; new methods of drug rehabilitation, prevention of STDs, psychological experiments to reduce rates of recidivism(sp?) and improve rehabilitation into society. Also, many experiments are little more than an inconvenience, rather than a serious risk to individuals. However, this is something that should only be done with the strictest of controls.

    Any program with prisoners has to have the same ethical controls as on any other human experimental participants. Volunteer only with full knowledge of the experiment and the risks associated, and levels of compensation equal to anyone on the outside participating in similar experiments. Prisons should be places of rehabilitation first and foremost; treating them as a resevoir of expendable humanity is toxic to the principals of a free and equal society.

  3. #3 Corkscrew
    August 14, 2006

    Any program with prisoners has to have the same ethical controls as on any other human experimental participants.

    I’d say greater ethical controls. The prisoners are in a setting that is intrinsically coercive – great care needs to be taken to ensure that this doesn’t feed through to the volunteering process.

  4. #4 Janne
    August 14, 2006

    The fundamental question becomes to what degree you at all can be an informed, willing participant when your entire existence is one of duress. Even a completely false suspicion that their treatment by people in authority will change for the worse may well be enough to push someone to participate in something they don’t really want to.

    A second question is of course how good a prison population is for most research. They’re pretty far from any population mean in many respects.

  5. #5 nbm
    August 14, 2006

    Coturnix, you may moderate this comment into the waste basket if you like as it is “conspiracy theory”, though it is not-at-all off-topic. The following site is a long article from 1994 which maintains “that AIDS originated in a biowarfare laboratory” and that the prisoners it was tested on, not being sick in the short term, were released, starting the worldwide epidemic. http://www.africa.upenn.edu/Urgent_Action/AIDS_Contract.html

  6. #6 coturnix
    August 14, 2006

    Yup, it is a conspiracy theory.

  7. #7 John McKay
    August 14, 2006

    Looking at the paper yesterday, Clever Wife read me the headline, “Panel Suggests Using Inmates in Drug Trials.” My immediate reaction was, “reword it to ‘Panel Suggests Using Prisoners in Medical Experimentation’ and see what reaction you get.”

    Your other commenters already hit on the main problem. There is no philisophical reason why using prisoners should be different from using any other group, say grad students or soldiers. From the researchers’ point of view there are some special advantages in using prisoners, all of which relate to control and observation. The ethical problem comes from the question of coercion and I don’t see any way around it.

    If my rewording brings to mind thoughts of Mengele or the Tuskeegee institute, that’s good. It should. Medical research on captive and powerless groups was horribly abused in the last century. I would much rather we be over cautious on this particular ethical question that allow those kind of crimes to continue.

  8. #8 bob koepp
    August 14, 2006

    Prisoners do retain some rights. I think that should include the right to volunteer as research subjects. It’s the responsibility of society to do whatever is necessary to ensure that the (remaining) rights of prisoners are respected.

  9. #9 tbell
    August 14, 2006

    The problem, it seems to me, isn’t just the issue of coercion to participate…Oversight is important. If something goes wrong,(bad side efects etc.), isn’t it vastly easier to suppress in a prison situation, where far fewer people have access to the individuals involved…

  10. #10 scout
    August 16, 2006

    the problem is the whole penal and adversarial system itself. add to that a prisoner’s desire to ‘get away from the doldrum’ by volunteering for research and you could throw just about anything their way and it would be a big ‘yes’. i’m not saying criminals should be pampered or have rights above victims (which has happened here on the west coast of canada), but if you’re in for life or 5, 10, 15 years, research is going to look a lot more attractive then cleanup, workout, tv, blah blah blah. hence the problem with how far the research could go….and how do you regulate that? how is it regulated now?

    and exactly what kind of experiments are we talking about and for what purpose? the variables are wide…..and that’s why i brought up eugenics.

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