Prisoner Research and Full Board Reviews

The IRB has been asked in the past whether all studies involving prisoners and/or prisoner research require a full board review. As defined in CFR 46 Subpart C, prisoners are considered a vulnerable population. Given the fact that prisoners are considered a vulnerable population, any study that directly involves their participation must automatically be classified as a full board review.
It is important to keep in mind that the risk for coercion and undue influence to participate is extremely with high when prisoners are the participants in a research study. The combination of their classification as a vulnerable population, along with the risk for coercion and undue influence to participate, dictate the need for the level of review provided by full board status to ensure their rights as human subjects in research are protected.
There are however some instances where prisoner research would not require a full board review. For example, if a study is looking only at archival data about prisoners, the study might qualify for an Expedited status. Even in these types of studies, precautions are required to ensure adequate protections for the prisoners.
Types of precautions that would be required is ensuring that all identifying information (e.g., prisoner ID number and name) has been removed from the dataset. Another precaution is ensuring that no interaction occurs between the prisoners and the research team.
Best practices for this type of prisoner research would include obtaining aggregate datasets which decrease the chances of any specific data elements being tied to one specific inmate. Also, the removal of any identifying information prior to passing it to the research team increases the confidentiality of the prisoners. The research team could commit to removing these identifying elements after receipt of the data, however in those situations the IRB needs to ensure appropriate security measures are in place to prevent the accidental release of the original dataset that included identifying information.
Finally, a researcher might explore whether a secondary dataset already exists in the public domain that would satisfy the study requirements. An existing secondary dataset would already have all of the identifying prisoner information removed.

Author: Dr. Ron Wallace, PhD