September 26, 2022

Spain puts prison psychology experiment on hold

Can prisoners give informed consent?

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The Spanish Interior Ministry has put a halt to psychology experiments on violent prisoners which involved stimulating the prefrontal cortex with a mild electric current. Researchers wanted to see if the technique, transcranial direct current stimulation, or tDCS, makes the prisoners less aggressive.

According to a pilot study whose results were published in Neuroscience in January, it seems to work. Prisoners who received tDCS reported that they felt less aggressive; prisoners in a control group felt unchanged.

But when New Scientist reported this week that the Spanish scientists would be doing a follow-up experiment with 12 prisoners after receiving approval from the Spanish government, prison officials, and a university ethics committee, the government backtracked and halted the experiment.  

Researchers have high hopes for tDCS. In the long term, Andrés Molero-Chamizo, a psychologist at the University of Huelva, told Vox that it could “make life better for inmates, both by making prison a less violent environment for those in it and by serving as a method of offender rehabilitation that’ll eventually allow inmates to get out.”

However, many people, including, it seems, the current Spanish government, have qualms about experimenting on prisoners. True, all of the subjects in this experiment signed a consent form. However, they live in a coercive environment and they may feel that participation will get them better treatment or a reprieve. Under these circumstances the meaning of “informed consent” for inmates could be stretched to the breaking point. Furthermore, if prisoners are less violent, governments will have less incentive to improve the conditions of their incarceration.

“To me this is a classic and genuinely difficult ethical dilemma,” Roland Nadler, a neuroethicist at the University of Ottawa, told Vox, “whereby the availability of a technological solution that promises immediate reduction in avoidable suffering also poses a risk of draining the moral urgency out of correcting a more systemic problem.”  

Michael Cook is editor of BioEdge 

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