“It is so much easier for indiscretions or bad intentions to take place behind those prison walls and razor wire. I have seen it in so many cases, where doctors who were sworn to save lives and do good have become so consumed by that intellectual scientific quest that they forget about the test subject. It is just so easy to abuse the situation,” stated Allen Hornblum, author of Acres of Skin (Hornblum, 1998) and former member of the Philadelphia Prison System Board of Trustees.
This committee concurs. The critique of strong protectionism, combined with a new understanding of research as a potential benefit, requires a reexamination of the current regulations. Advances in ethical thinking about protectionism suggest a new regulatory model. In particular, the committee rejects strong protectionism because it discounts the notion that researchers can be trusted to act virtuously in the protection of subjects. Researchers have responsibility for protecting subjects in their studies, especially those who are most vulnerable. However, given the troubling history of research abuses in prisons, weak protectionism is not an option. The recommendations in this chapter, and throughout this report, reflect a moderate protectionist stance, acknowledging that robust protections are needed but that they need not be rigid or absolute.
This position should not be perceived as a call for the relaxation of prison research ethics. Justice and respect for persons are as vital today as they were three decades ago; research still must be constrained by these ethical principles. The prison continues to be a setting in which it may be difficult to avoid contamination through contact with what will often be a culture of, at best, deprivation and dysfunction and, at worst, corruption, brutality, and degradation (Hornblum, 1997, 1998; Murphy, 2005; Rhodes, 2005).
Perhaps some unease is appropriate about removing what prisoners themselves, given full information and understanding, might regard as acceptable or even desirable options in light of their circumstances, circumstances that are unlikely to be changed for the better by research bans. A prisoner’s ability to participate in research need not be completely precluded.
The original commissioners talked to actual prisoner-subjects during a fact-finding visit to Jackson State Prison on November 14, 1975. The prison, in southern Michigan, was at the time home to one of the largest nontherapeutic biomedical research programs in the country. The report notes that commission members spoke with a representative sample of