Institutional review boards (IRBs) are ethics committees responsible for monitoring research studies involving humans, and they have specific rules to follow to keep human subjects safe. According to the IRB Guidebook developed by the US Department of Health & Human Services, vulnerable populations must be treated with special consideration when part of a research study. Prisoners are included on the list of vulnerable populations.

A Georgetown University report, “Vulnerability, Vulnerable Populations, and Policy” includes the statement:

“Poor health and diminished sense of dignity suffered by vulnerable populations are the results of unjust public policies and practices.”

Women in prison do not often have a voice and are frequently characterized by “poor health and a diminished sense of dignity”.  It is important to create awareness about this population that is typically ignored, but faces injustice due to the corrections systems’  and other government policies.

A recent CBC News article reported that self-injuries among women in Canadian prisons have “soared” in the last 5 years. From 2007-2008 there were 54 reports of self-injury among incarcerated women. From 2012-2013, however, there were 323 reports of self-injury. The article attributes the increase to an ill-equipped system that is not capable of dealing with the mental health issues of prisoners appropriately.

Image by ImageBrokerRM, from

The American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) website includes further information about injustices women in the US prison system face today. Some topics include, pregnancy, women’s health, rape and sexual assault, youth, and loss of parental rights while in prison. Additionally, the ACLU website includes current media coverage of issues involving incarcerated women.

Guidelines for research using human subjects have been developed based on numerous accounts of unethical research practices in the past. Prisoners have made the list of vulnerable populations for research because they had been terribly abused in research historically, and because of their precarious position in society and diminished freedoms. Prisoners might be persuaded to do something they don’t want to do or agree to participating in a research study if it would mean gaining any type of freedom in return. Prisoners might also be forced to do something because they are at the hands of those guarding them. If this is true of research studies, what does this mean for the general prison population? They can be exploited too.

What must be done to make sure there is competent and effective oversight to ensure the human rights of all of those incarcerated? If we simply forget about those millions of individuals who are incarcerated, abuses will continue.

The ALCU website includes a list of ways to ameliorate injustice for women in the overburdened US prison system.  Here are some ways you can help! Some ideas include tutoring or mentoring an at-risk girl, volunteering with an organization for court-involved families, volunteering with GEMS (an organization featured in previous Girls’ Globe articles, one by myself and another by Sally Pope), supporting local after-school programs, or writing to your legislator in support of policies prohibiting incarceration of prostitution by individuals under age 18. Please see the full list of more ways to help here.

As we have seen, it is sometimes easy to forget that prisoners have rights, too. Our work towards a gender equitable world must include all women and girls – including female prisoners.

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