Thursday, October 5, 2006

biomedical prison research

allen hornblum writes on prisons in the october 6 chronicle of higher education. he isn't concerned with criminological research so much as human medical experimentation ranging from "relatively innocuous studies of deodorants and detergents to dangerous work on dioxin and chemical warfare."

after writing a book on mistreatment in a philadelphia prison from the 1940s to the 1970s, professor hornblum is today concerned that a new national academies report (Ethical Considerations for Research Involving Prisoners) will greenlight a new generation of biomedical research on prisoners.

i applaud any national academies report that will help prevent abuses of prisoners, but professor hornblum does raise some troubling questions.

first, we know about the risks to the subjects of such research, but what are the benefits to prisoners? do we really need to be testing cosmetics on inmates (rather than, say, supermodels who might actually use such products)? given the absence of health care for prison releasees, how many subjects could even afford the costly drugs they tested?

second, aside from biomedical companies and individual researchers, who else wins and loses in such research? the state? what about the non-prisoners paid to offer up their bodies for medical experimentation? will they be undercut by cheaper and more plentiful prison "volunteers?"

third, to what extent do normal human subjects procedures apply behind prison walls? while principles of voluntariness and confidentiality are given great weight by internal review boards, they can be extremely difficult to achieve in a coercive environment such as a prison.*

i complain as loudly as anyone whenever i must go through several sets of arduous human subjects procedures before i can ask prisoners fairly innocuous questions (e.g., whether and how they voted). i don't anticipate another tuskegee, but a new wave of high-profit biomedical research will certainly require continued vigilance to prevent similar abuses.

*for example, one prison administrator discouraged me from paying inmates for the interviews published in locked out. s/he said that if i offered as little as two dollars per interview, almost every inmate would want to participate and this would create problems among those not selected for interviews. this was an exaggeration, but not that far from reality -- where else would two dollars seem like a coercive inducement?

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