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The truth behind researching in prisons

By Jaimee S. Mallion

Patenaude (2004, p.69S) said “it is far easier to gain access to study the residents of a remote Alaskan community than to study the lives of prison inmates and/or those persons whose task it is to keep them within the prison walls”.

Honestly, I can see where he was coming from!

Prison research is like going through a maze. You think you’re following the right path, but then a wall crops up in front of you, so you have to try a different route. I’m going to talk about some of those walls you might face when conducting research in prison, and how to overcome them.

Step 1: Building Bridges

Most people want to get out of the prison, but the first barrier you will face is getting in! Building relationships with key stakeholders, such as prison governors and staff, is essential in gaining access to the prison. You might have a really exciting research idea, but is it enough to get you in?

Think of it from the governor’s perspective: they are taking a risk by letting you into the prison. Will the research benefit the prison? What research do they feel is needed? What impact will the research have on the prison regime? That’s a big question. Prisons already have difficulties with staffing and workload, consider conducting research that you can run yourself with little involvement from prison officers. Remember you have to go through additional ethics applications too, which can take a while to complete, so start early!

Example: My research examined reasons why individuals joined street gangs. At the governor’s request, I included components examining likelihood to be violent. I had key training so I could independently venture around the prison, I recruited my own participants and conducted my own interviews. My research did not impact on staff or the prison regime.

Step 2: Recruiting Participants

The first few days of starting prison research will be challenging and it’s likely that you will not have any participants (especially if you are not relying on prison officers to recruit).

How do you overcome this lull? Make yourself visible. Ask if you can introduce yourself in some of the education classes, go onto the wings and chat with the prisoners. Get to know the prisoners in responsible roles (e.g., librarians, cooks, listeners). They are likely to know people who would want to take part.

Here’s the thing, you’re unlikely to be able to offer a reward to prisoners for participating in your research, so what would they get out of it? Why would they want to take part? Make your research interesting to participants! Interviews are always a good idea, participants get to talk informally with someone new and independent of the prison.

Recruitment tends take a ‘snowballing’ approach in prison. Dependent on how the study goes, participants will tell their friends whether or not they should take part!

Top Tips: My experience of researching in prisons was a bit of trial and error! I learnt early on that I need to ‘look’ different from prison staff if I want prisoners to talk to me freely. I made sure to wear colourful clothes (prison officers wore black and white) and had a lanyard that differed from those worn by visiting police.

Step 3: Safety

Researching in prisons does put you in a vulnerable position. For the purposes of your research, you are often in one-to-one contact with a prisoner. You are also asking the prisoners personal questions, so need to be prepared for a variety of responses. There are a few simple steps you can take: make a prison officer aware of where you are and what you are doing, keep yourself positioned close to the door and near an alarm (which are in all rooms). Follow your instincts! Be prepared to change your interview questions, take breaks and even stop an interview if necessary. Ask staff if there are any prisoners you should not be alone with. Most importantly, put yourself first. If you need to leave the situation, leave it.

Step 4: The Interview

It’s a long process to get through before you can actually do an interview, but it really is worth it! The vast majority of interviews I conducted were fun and rewarding. Be yourself and be relaxed, then your participants will be. Try to avoid reading from paperwork too much, memorise your key questions and have some prompts prepared too. I got a lot of valuable information from my research, but much of this came from topics I hadn’t considered, but my participants wanted to discuss. Most importantly, remember to thank your participants (and ask if they have any friends that would want to take part!).

The journey to conducting prison research may be long and fraught with challenges, but when you get into that interview room, you realise that it was worth it!