Although the use of prisoners for biomedical research is not explicitly debarred by any of the international declarations when all appropriate safeguards are followed, arguments on both sides are persuasive and such contradictory ethical evaluations provide no basis for an international recommendation. The Nuremberg Code is a set of principles especially applicable to controlling but also to authorizing ethical research on prisoners. Nevertheless, the tradition in Europe since World War II has been to avoid all medical research on prisoners. This strong position has been a reaction to the Nazi atrocities. Also, it is generally believed that prisoners cannot be expected to give a free consent to experimental projects. This position is contrary to the whole purpose of the Nuremberg Code.
Up to recent years, the USA was in clear disagreement with the European position. Now, however, there has been a rapid reversal, due to law suits and adverse publicity engendered by civil rights activist groups. Approximately two-thirds of the American states now ban research on prisoners and the ban has been extended to federal penitentiaries. The recommendations of the National Commission on Protection of Human Subjects would virtually end all research in the USA using prison inmates.
In the 1960s, the USA treated prisoners' skin with chemical agents in the hope they would cause significant inflammation and crusting. The experimentation was to discover if skin could be toughened sufficiently to provide natural body armour for soldiers.