Ethics of prison education

A recent CHE article described some colleges (Bard, in particular) as offering college-level education to prison inmates. The first part of the article described benefits to the inmates, but then said this:

The idea behind the consortium isn’t just to change education in prison; it’s to change higher education as an institution, Mr. Kenner says. “Elite colleges and universities are in such a bubble and are so ingrained in their habits on how to find students. We worry that they’re losing so much American talent and so much American intellectual curiosity.

Traditional students have been instrumental not only in starting prison programs but also in sustaining them. Undergraduate volunteers can’t offer for-credit course work, but they have provided tutoring to inmates and facilitated other noncredit academic experiences. And interacting with a subset of the population that historically has been ignored by elite colleges and universities is as beneficial to the traditional undergraduate as it is to an inmate, Mr. Karpowitz says.

Interesting.  Possible societal benefits, if an education helps decrease recidivism.  Possible benefits to academia, as participation may broaden students’ views to include the world outside academia.  And there appear to be benefits for the inmates:  a chance to work toward something positive, get a better job after release, &c.

Sounds great, right?  But I wonder what kind of an ethical review these programs went through, if any.  Prison inmates are, according to the APA, a vulnerable population.  It’s difficult to involve them in experiments as the costs of declining to participate are disproportionate (e.g., participating might impress a parole board).  These programs could be considered controlled experiments:  from a population certain members are given a treatment; one may then measure the effects of that treatment (e.g., recidivism).  Anthropological ethics might also apply — imagine the outcry if an anthropologist interfered with a group of individuals who couldn’t say ‘no.’

I’m not, of course, suggesting these particular programs are unethical.  I just wonder what ethical standards were applied.  I remember the first time I put in an IRB application for an undergrad religion class.  I was running an experiment to see if a mnemonic trick described in a 14th century text would actually work.  I had to use the same application the university applied to any ‘human testing.’  Not only were anthropology ethical guidelines not part of the review, but most of the questions were irrelevant.  My favorite was “Are any of your subjects pregnant?”  I’m just glad they didn’t make me ask . . .

This should be a concern with anyone doing interdisciplinary and/or transdisciplinary work.  Each discipline has its own code, based on solid historical precedent.  As a researcher who’s work overlaps several disciplines, it’s a great relief to have access to an IRB to help me make sure negative impacts are minimized.  But who should be on the IRB for an ID proposal?  All too often conflicts between codes emerge.  Do I, as an anthropologist, acknowledge my participants by name?  Or do I, in my psychology persona, ensure anonymity?

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