The sudden decision of the Ministry of the Interior to "prudently" paralyze an experiment with violent prisoners, revealed on Thursday by EL PAÍS, has sparked a debate in the scientific community. The investigation, carried out in the prisons of Huelva and Córdoba, consisted of supplying a light electric current in the forehead of the inmates and evaluating before and after the perception of their own aggressiveness. Since 2016, 41 prisoners have participated, 15 of them convicted of homicide.
"I do not understand the objections of the Ministry, especially if this comes from behind," he says. José Ramón Amor, coordinator of the Observatory of Bioethics and Science of the Pablo VI Foundation. "There is much that prisoners, and society in the process, can win if this technique works and is effective. And it seems that the risks are minimal and perfectly acceptable, "says Amor, author of the book Bioethics and Neurosciences. The authors of the experiment in Spanish prisons brandished drops of up to 37% in feelings such as physical aggression.
"There is much that prisoners, and society in the process, can win," argues bioethics expert José Ramón Amor
"The investigation fulfills the formal procedures", underlines the jurist Federico de Montalvo Jääskeläinen, president of the Bioethics Committee of Spain, the highest advisory body of the Government in the field of scientific ethics. One of the coordinators of the experiment, the psychologist Andrés Molero, from the University of Huelva, confirms that the study was approved by the ethics committee of his institution, as the law indicates.
"Minors, pregnant women, prisoners and the mentally ill are considered vulnerable groups, but research with them may be of interest for their own good. This paradox occurs ", explains De Montalvo. "In this case, the intrusion into the physical integrity of prisoners is minimal. One should evaluate the risk and benefit one by one and explore well the autonomy of their consent to participate in the experiment, "adds the lawyer.
Spanish laws do not mention any restrictions on the participation of inmates in medical research, as confirmed Asier Urruela, Professor of Criminal Law at the University of Zaragoza. In his opinion, "if the investigation has gone through an ethical committee, the risk is minimal and there is a potential reduction of aggressiveness, there should be no greater problem".
The 41 inmates of Huelva and Córdoba voluntarily signed up for the experiment, without receiving any economic or penitentiary benefit in return. The expert in bioethics Iñigo de Miguel, from the University of the Basque Country, opens another front: "Is it ethical to deprive a prisoner of the right to benefit from an investigation by the mere fact of being imprisoned?". As he points out, "the right to benefit from an investigation is a right consecrated, for example, in the International Covenant on Social, Economic and Cultural Rights, ratified by Spain. "
"If everything is correct, its resumption will be authorized", say sources of Penitentiary Institutions
Regarding the use of brain electrical stimulation to try to reduce aggression, the doctor and psychologist Montserrat Esquerda, director of the Borja Institute of Bioethics of the Ramon Llull University, believes that "there are previous studies that support its application, as well as studies in other areas, both in psychiatric and neurological disorders." Work in the prisons of Huelva and Córdoba "seems methodologically correct," he says.
"I understand that this project has been endorsed by an accredited clinical research ethics committee, so its ethical suitability for me is beyond doubt," he says. Julio García Guerrero, medical officer of the Penitentiary Center of Castellón I until his recent retirement. His doctoral thesis, defended in 2013 at the University of Valencia, it dealt with informed consent in patients deprived of liberty. "In my opinion, as long as the authenticity of the voluntariness in the participation of a prisoner as a research subject is guaranteed, there is no reason not to allow him to do so", ditch.
From Penitentiary Institutions insisted on Friday that the decision to paralyze the study, after having given the go-ahead on January 22, 2019 at the start of a second phase of it, is "precautionary." "The last authorization was given almost automatically, which was common when no incidence had been recorded in the previous phase of the study. However, knowing that we are entering a new phase, it has been decided to paralyze until we collect all the information about what it consists of, "said Prison sources. For this, Interior has commissioned a report to the Subdirectorate General of Prison Health. "If everything is correct, its resumption will be authorized", they add before emphasizing that the Interior decision to stop "does not intend to question the scientific validity of the experiment".
"Is it ethical to deprive a prisoner of the right to benefit from an investigation?" Asks Professor Íñigo de Miguel
The start of the study and the prior authorization request date back to 2016. Then, the people in charge of the experiment sent a dossier with the details of the experiment to the Penitentiary Institutions. After its study, the Subdirectorate General for Treatment gave the go-ahead and communicated it to the penitentiary centers in which it was going to develop, those of Huelva and Córdoba. The authors were required to comply with the Data Protection Law to preserve the anonymity of prisoners who were part of the study, that their participation was voluntary and that, in addition, they made a written consent. The scientists were also asked to send a copy of the report with the results.
Officials of the two centers consulted by EL PAÍS affirm that during the two months that the tests lasted, there was no incident. "For some of the prisoners it was like a game," recalls one of the prison workers who witnessed the experiment. These same sources assure that the inmates were informed that they were going to "measure their level of aggression" and that all those who finally intervened did so voluntarily and without receiving anything in return.
In the case of the prison in Córdoba, prisoners from modules 1, 3, 4 and 11 participated, all considered as areas of respect, since they are not confused internal prisoners who have accepted a series of rules of coexistence. Prison sources add that, from the first moment, it was ruled out to perform the experiment with internal isolation modules, the most problematic.