Who are Prisoners in Research?

Prisoners are classified as a vulnerable population per CFR 46 Subpart C. A question an IRB sometimes faces is exactly who are prisoners? While the answer seems clear, some grey areas do exist with this vulnerable population.

The prisoner definition per §46.303 states, “…any individual involuntarily confined or detained in a penal institution.” Based upon this definition an individual being held in a prison or jail is a prisoner. However, what about individuals on a work release program or staying in a halfway house as part of their reintegration back into society; should we consider those individuals ‘prisoners’ when they are the study population?

Individuals on a work release status that requires them to return to the facility at night are prisoners since they are still considered detained. Individuals residing in a halfway house require a more in-depth understanding of the release conditions to the halfway house to determine a ‘prisoner’ status.

The full definition per §46.303 specifies that individuals being detained in other facilities that, “…provide alternatives to criminal prosecution or incarceration in a penal institution…” meet the criterion of being prisoners. Therefore, if failure to return to the halfway house at night or leaving without permission would result in the individual being returned to an incarceration facility, the answer is yes, they are prisoners. However, if the individual can leave the halfway house without penalty, technically they should not be considered a prisoner for research purposes.

It is important to note that individuals serving sentences under some form of community corrections (probation/parole) are not considered prisoners under the CFR definitions, however similar special considerations such as the risk of coercion need to be considered. These will be discussed in future articles.

Author: Ron Wallace, PhD