NCPA - National Center for Policy Analysis


March 3, 2006

Officials at the Office for Human Research Protections (OHRP) are considering whether to loosen federal patient protections for prisoners in order to allow more inmates to volunteer for medical experiments and social-science research, says National Journal contributor Neil Munro.

Under current federal rules, biomedical research on prisoners must offer a direct benefit to the prisoner and must pose a risk only minimally higher than that faced by a sick person outside the trial. Supporters claim that a change in the rules could allow more social-science research aimed at advancing prison reform and could alleviate the shortage of patients eligible to serve as subjects in pharmaceutical testing.

However, due to its sordid past, opponents say that the actual practice of inmate research disproves the claims of benefits:

  • From the 1940s to the 1970s, many prisoners were subjects in university- and company-run research protocols, often with no protections from, or treatments for, debilitating side effects.
  • By 1972, government officials estimated that more than 90 percent of all new pharmaceuticals were being tested on prisoners, but by the mid-1970s, such testing had declined, as citizens and legislators recoiled from news about abuses.
  • In 2000, 298 prisoners from the Holmesburg Prison in Philadelphia sued for damages stemming from federally funded experiments (from 1951 to 1974) conducted by University of Pennsylvania researchers, but the case was thrown out because the statute of limitations had expired.

Moreover, most trials fail to produce significant benefits to the participants, partly because many candidate drugs do not work, says Munro.

But as long as biomedical companies, prison-management companies and corrections agencies stand to gain revenue from research, the studies will continue even when they yield no medical benefits to the prisoners, says Munro.

Source: Neil Munro, "Lowering the Bar on Inmate Testing," National Journal, November 19, 2005.

For text (subscription required):


Browse more articles on Health Issues