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Special Rules for Including Prisoners

The federal regulations outline specific rules that both the IRB and the researcher must follow in order to approve prisoner studies.

Rules the IRB must follow:
A majority of the Board cannot have association with the prison involved.  In addition, the IRB-SBS is required to have one member of our Board be either a prisoner or a prisoner representative with the appropriate background and experience.  Often this person is not a regular member of our board and serves only on a needs basis.  It is important to note that you should give the IRB-SBS adequate time to schedule the review of a prisoner study; because of scheduling restrictions, we may not be able to accommodate last-minute reviews.

Rules the Researcher must follow:

  1. Payments and benefits of study will not unduly influence the prisoners to participate. Remember that advances in living conditions, medical care, quality of food, amenities, and opportunities for earning payment in a prison environment can have a much greater effect than identical payments to a non-prison population. Prison policies can help determine an appropriate payment amount.
  2. The risks of the research are comparable to risks that would be acceptable to non-prisoner participants.
  3. Prisoner selection is fair and impartial (unless otherwise justified by the researcher for the design of the study).
  4. Prisoner selection, recruitment, and consent are conducted by the researcher and not the prison staff. The underlying principle for this rule is that the prisoners will not be coerced into participating in the study.  As you will be working within the prison system, their rules may require alternative procedures.  We recommend that you contact the prison before you submit your protocol and discuss with them any rules or regulations regarding conducting research, particularly any hurdles to the consent process. Please provide a recruitment plan and consent procedure that encourages voluntary participation, making sure that prison leaders do not endorse participation by prisoners.  In your protocol, please make the Board aware of any requirements made by the prison system on the implementation of your study, so that the Board can adequately assess this information in their review.
  5. The consent and other study information are presented in language that is understandable to the prison population.
  6. Prisoners are assured that participation will not affect decisions regarding parole. Assurances should also exist that the parole board will not be influenced by the prisoner’s participation. This information should be included in the consent form and explained to the participant. 
  7. Provisions for follow-up care, as needed, will be provided to prisoners. 

In addition to the rules outlined by the federal regulations, please be aware that a prisoner population may have other complicated elements beyond the nature of imprisonment. Incarcerated individuals may be victims of abuse, deal with substance abuse, and or have mental health issues.  Obviously this is not the case with all prisoners, but it is important that researchers be prepared to deal with any circumstances that may arise. Information that you collect could relate to on-going investigations and it may be necessary that you obtain a Certificate of Confidentiality in order to protect a participant’s confidentiality.

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