Individuals who are incarcerated in US jails and prisons face a high burden of chronic disease, according to a report published in the Journal of General Internal Medicine. Despite their high incidence of disease, the majority of these individuals are underrepresented in health research, resulting in poor understanding of risk factors for disease in this population.

In a research paper by Brie Williams, MD, from the Department of Medicine, Division of Geriatrics, University of California, San Francisco, and colleagues, the investigators provide recommendations for creating research initiatives in the jail and prison population. Specific actions must be initiated by policymakers, correctional leaders, and general medicine researchers and practitioners to close the research gap in jails and prisons across the United States. Health researchers, for instance, may wish to engage with correctional institutions and agencies to better understand research requirements. In addition, health researchers may wish to engage with individuals who have recently been released from jail or prison to understand the population and their research needs.

In addition, greater education among correctional leaders is needed to eliminate restrictions on ethically conducted research that is contained within the scope of permissible research, as defined by subpart C of the federal guidelines. Correctional leaders can also help researchers by using their real-life work knowledge to develop a list of research priorities. Finally, policymakers should review and evaluate current laws and regulations to identify restrictions on inmates’ right to participate in health research. Policymakers should also convene stakeholders for a review of policies and to develop research agendas.

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“As the nation grapples with its failed experiment in mass incarceration and that experiment’s complex public health legacy, ethically conducted research across our nation’s many diverse systems of justice will be essential to improving the health and health-related outcomes of current and former prisoners, their families, and their communities,” according to the investigators.


Ahalt C, Haney C, Kinner S, Williams B. Balancing the rights to protection and participation: A call for expanded access to ethically conducted correctional health research. J Gen Intern Med. 2018;33(5):764-768.