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Research Involving Prisoners
Research involving prisoners as subjects
- Guidance Contact:
IU Human Research Protection Program (HRPP)
Conducting research with prisoners requires special consideration and additional safeguards. Please see the IU HRPP Policy on Prisoners in Research for specific requirements. Additional guidance on some topics is provided below.
A prisoner is defined by HHS regulations at 45 CFR part 46.303(c) as “any individual involuntarily confined or detained in a penal institution.” The term is intended to encompass individuals sentenced to such an institution under a criminal or civil statute, individuals detained in other facilities by virtue of statutes or commitment procedures which provide alternatives to criminal prosecution or incarceration in a penal institution, and individuals detained pending arraignment, trial, or sentencing. Examples of individuals considered prisoners are available in the OHRP Prisoner Research FAQs.
Investigators must be prepared to ensure additional safeguards are met when enrolling prisoners into research, including providing detailed information about the following:
- Principal Investigator’s (PI's) experience with this population - including previous research experience and/or academic preparation for working and interacting with prisoners. The PI must also explain the qualifications of the remainder of the study team, including any relevant training provided by the PI and a plan for supervision of study personnel.
- Letter/email of cooperation - from any facility in which research will be conducted confirming that the facility has granted the investigators permission to use the site, or that permission will be granted upon IRB approval. If the researchers will access offenders’ jail files that are not public record, this must be noted in the letter of cooperation.
- Recruitment process - including recruitment materials. It is not sufficient, for example, to simply state that flyers will be posted in common areas. The investigator must detail the steps taken to prevent potential subjects from feeling coerced into participating.
- Location(s) of interviews and interactions with subjects - including privacy features. The investigator must explain how the setting will prevent other prisoners, as well as facility officials, from overhearing or recording the discussion. If this is not possible, the subject must be clearly advised of this fact at the beginning of each interview or interaction.
- Plan for communication with research subjects - bearing in mind that prisoners’ ability to contact investigators may be limited. The communication plan may require the involvement of facility officials.
If investigators plan on conducting research at a federal prison, the Federal Bureau of Prisons regulations also apply to this research.
If investigators need to obtain access to Indiana prisoners’ records for research purposes, the Indiana Department of Corrections requires that all requests be made to the Director of Planning Services in written form. The request must include the following:
- Name of the agency or organization performing the research
- Names of the persons directly responsible for conducting the research
- The purpose of the research
- How the research is to be performed
- What measures will be taken to assure the proper protection of classified information
Approval of these requests will be granted or denied by the Indiana Department of Corrections per their policies and procedures. See Indiana Administrative Code Title 210, 1-6-7, for details.