Despite the growing recognition for the need to improve the health of prisoners in Canada and the need for health research, there has been little discussion of the ethical issues with regards to health research with prisoners in Canada. The purpose of this paper is to encourage a national conversation about what it means to conduct ethically sound health research with prisoners given the current realities of the Canadian system. Lessons from the Canadian system could presumably apply in other jurisdictions.
Any discussion regarding research ethics with Canadian prisoners must begin by first taking into account the disproportionate number of Indigenous prisoners (e.g., 22–25% of prisoners are Indigenous, while representing approximately 3% of the general Canadian population) and the high proportion of prisoners suffering from mental illnesses (e.g., 45% of males and 69% of female inmates required mental health interventions while in custody). The main ethical challenges that researchers must navigate are (a) the power imbalances between them, the correctional services staff, and the prisoners, and the effects this has on obtaining voluntary consent to research; and (b), the various challenges associated to protecting the privacy and confidentiality of study participants who are prisoners. In order to solve these challenges, a first step would be to develop clear and transparent processes for ethical health research, which ought to be informed by multiple stakeholders, including prisoners, the correctional services staff, and researchers themselves.
Stakeholder and community engagement ought to occur in Canada with regards to ethical health research with prisoners that should also include consultation with various parties, including prisoners, correctional services staff, and researchers. It is important that national and provincial research ethics organizations examine the sufficiency of existing research ethics guidance and, where there are gaps, to develop guidelines and help craft policy.