Improving public health by respecting autonomy: using social science research to enfranchise vulnerable prison populations

Prev Med. 2015 May:74:21-3. doi: 10.1016/j.ypmed.2015.01.024. Epub 2015 Feb 21.


It is widely recognised that prisoners constitute a vulnerable population that is subject to numerous health inequalities and merits special protection. Improving prisoners' access to healthcare by ensuring adherence to the principle of equivalence has been the main focus of efforts to ensure that their health is not jeopardised. However, another means of respecting prisoners' autonomy and improving their health is to involve them (and prison staff) in social science research within prisons. Such research not only produces valuable data which can be used to assess whether the principle of equivalence is being respected; it also enfranchises prisoners by allowing them to air concerns about perceived ill-treatment and influence their environment. If prison authorities enable such research and adjust policy accordingly, both they and prisoners will benefit from the increased level of respect for prisoners' autonomy, and the improvements in individual and public health that flow from this. Conducting social science research in prisons enables the creation of a virtuous cycle of respect that makes prisons safer and healthier places.

Keywords: Ethics; Principle of equivalence; Prisoners; Prisons; Social science research; Vulnerable population.

MeSH terms

  • Community Participation / psychology
  • Health Services Accessibility / ethics
  • Health Services Accessibility / standards*
  • Human Rights / standards
  • Humans
  • Needs Assessment / ethics
  • Needs Assessment / standards
  • Personal Autonomy*
  • Prisoners / psychology*
  • Public Health / ethics
  • Public Health / methods
  • Public Health / standards*
  • Quality of Health Care / ethics
  • Quality of Health Care / standards*
  • Research Design
  • Social Sciences / methods
  • Social Sciences / standards*
  • Vulnerable Populations / psychology