Some researchers have considered prisoners to be particularly suitable as research subjects. In some cases, there has been a perception that prisoners are good research subjects because they are inexpensive, available for follow-up studies and are in a closed research environment. From a research ethics perspective, however, prisoners are a particularly challenging group that requires special consideration due to the nature of their situation and the fact they are a vulnerable group.

One challenge in terms of research ethics is that a prison not only keeps the prisoners inside, it also keeps the public out. Unfortunately, there are many examples of this having been exploited by researchers. Particularly in medical research, there are examples of improper use of prisoners for research purposes. Social researchers also face special ethical challenges in their research work on prisoners.

One ethical challenge in research lies in the possibilities for obtaining freely given informed consent to participate from people whose freedom is restricted. Research that is conducted in prisons, other institutions, or during a treatment programme, is subject to more stringent requirements in order to ensure that consent is voluntary since there may be uncertainty about whether the participants have felt pressured into participating. It is therefore desirable that information on the project is communicated directly by project management in order to distinguish the research project from other activity in the prison. It is also important to make it clear that prison management do not provide guidance on whether prisoners should participate or not.

A third challenge is the risk that researchers may overload the institution and take resources away from other activities. Norwegian prisons are experiencing a relatively large influx of researchers who want to gain access to prisoners. Prison management and the correctional services are important gatekeepers in this regard, who assess and, where relevant, approve such requests. Such assessments must always consider whether the value of the research can justify the burden that the project entails for those involved (both staff and prisoners). It is therefore important that the research project is designed to minimise the burden for both prisoners and staff.

An additional challenge is the fact that there is a higher proportion of persons with reading difficulties and language problems among prisoners than in the general population. Mental health problems and substance abuse problems are also more prevalent in prisons. It is important to take these factors into account both when recruiting participants for research projects and when conducting a research project in prison. For example, it is important that information is communicated in a way that ensures that the information is understood and that the requirement for informed consent is met.
In spite of these challenges, it is crucial that prisoners are not excluded from research and from the benefits of research. Generally, research on prisoners can be justified if

  • the research cannot be conducted on other groups;
  • if the prisoners are likely to benefit from the research;
  • the risk of unfortunate consequences of the research is low.

This article has been translated from Norwegian by Carole Hognestad, Akasie språktjenester AS.