Prior to the early 1970s, the majority of drug research was conducted on inmates in penal institutions across the world. The U.S. has since instituted strict regulations regarding using prison populations in medical research. These regulations are so restrictive that prisoners are usually omitted from studies. Could this exclusion be hindering medical research which could possibly benefit both prison populations and the general public? A recent study in the Journal of Medical Ethics surveyed 293 members of the U.K. National Health Service’s Research Ethics Committees and 69 medical and social science researchers on this issue and found a surprising outcome. Most respondents reported that the greatest factors that motivated researchers to exclude prisoners were due to perceived logistical obstacles in including them in the study population. Logistics aside, inclusion of prisoners in medical research could increase diversity and expand research on conditions that disproportionately impact certain racial and ethnic groups. Safeguards against coercion do need to be addressed; one idea suggested was the creation of a national registry for prisoner research.
History is rife with unethical experiments on inmates. But with proper safeguards prisoner studies may hold the key to the accurate representation of vulnerable groups and lead to health benefits —