Twenty Years in Prison: Reflections on Conducting Research in Correctional Environments

Date01 March 2019
DOI10.1177/0032885519825489
Published date01 March 2019
Subject MatterArticles
/tmp/tmp-18PmR9BwA1yVws/input 825489TPJXXX10.1177/0032885519825489The Prison JournalField et al.
research-article2019
Article
The Prison Journal
2019, Vol. 99(2) 135 –149
Twenty Years in
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Conducting Research
in Correctional
Environments
Courtney Field1, Vicki Archer1,
and Julia Bowman1
Abstract
Prisons are a difficult terrain in which to undertake research. Our
experience in conducting a comprehensive prevalence study of health
factors across New South Wales has provided us with a unique perspective
on how to overcome common difficulties when undertaking prison-
based research that may otherwise seem insurmountable. We outline six
domains that constitute major challenges to the successful completion
of projects as we understand them and offer practical solutions where
possible. Our aim is to encourage researchers to undertake this important
work in a manner that will provide positive outcomes for researchers,
organizations working in the corrections space, and inmates.
Keywords
prison research, criminology research, research design, data collection
in prison
1Justice Health and Forensic Mental Health Network, Matraville, New South Wales, Australia
Corresponding Author:
Courtney Field, Justice Health and Forensic Mental Health Network, 1300 Anzac Parade,
Matraville, 2036 New South Wales, Australia.
Email: Courtney.field@justicehealth.nsw.gov.au

136
The Prison Journal 99(2)
Introduction
The Network Patient Health Survey (NPHS) is a large prevalence survey
undertaken across correctional centers in New South Wales, Australia. NPHS
is the largest and longest running survey of its kind undertaken within a sin-
gle jurisdiction, anywhere in the world. The 2015 survey is the most recent
iteration in a succession spanning two decades. The survey is undertaken by
the Justice Health and Forensic Mental Health Network (JH&FMHN, or the
Network) on an approximately five yearly basis and provides a detailed snap-
shot of inmates’ physical and mental health along with detailed demographic
information. This work informs the provision of service to patients under the
Network’s care as well as contributing to an important public health knowl-
edge base. The research team at JH&FMHN has a built-up store of institu-
tional knowledge concerning the conduct of research in corrections
environments, assisting us to navigate pitfalls in this context, and which may
assist other researchers to do the same.
Inmates ought to be the subject of far more research from across a range
of disciplines; however, perennial issues associated with conducting research
within such a rigid environment can stymie research projects and the enthu-
siasm to undertake them. A range of challenges for prison-based research
have been identified in the literature but simply confirming these from our
own perspective has limited value, nor will it provide guidance to researchers
who may be attempting prison-based research for the first time. Our aim is to
be more pragmatic and solutions-focused by outlining approaches that enable
research, rather than simply describing complications.
Our task is to provide solutions, where possible, to challenges routinely
encountered in prison-based research. These suggestions are based on many
years of close experience and informed as much by our mistakes as by our
successes. Through a review of our lessons learned, we have identified six
broad domains that require particular attention during the planning and
execution of prison-based research. This set of issues comprises problems
of access, the importance of communication, ethical considerations, the
need for good preparation, appropriate governance, and some ways to con-
sider the needs of participants. Some of these domains represent hurdles or
impediments to research. Possible solutions are suggested that have been
informed by our own idiosyncratic experience with reference to literature
where relevant. Other domains represent strategies that might make the
research process easier. All may be described as organizational risks and
are interconnected, but each has discrete features that ought to be carefully
considered by those embarking on prison-based research. While essential
for large-scale studies such as the NPHS, we hope that our explanation of

Field et al.
137
these domains will prove helpful for projects of all sizes. We believe that a
better understanding of the issues associated with research in the complex
corrections environment will encourage researchers to approach the area
with a realistic outlook and to build fruitful partnerships with corrective
services agencies and allied organizations.
Access
The most obvious and persistent problem associated with undertaking
research within a corrections environment is the simple fact that participants
are difficult to access. Numerous researchers have pointed out that the pro-
cesses associated with gaining approval for research and entry to custodial
centers are drawn out and can take many months to navigate successfully (see
Reiter, 2014; Schlosser, 2008). This is as much a reality of doing business for
researchers, such as the authors, who are attached to organizations closely
affiliated to corrective services, as it is for independent researchers. While
difficulties with access seem obvious, they warrant discussion as a number of
issues contribute to this challenge. Some researchers, such as Reiter, believe
that impediments associated with accessing inmates stem from an aversion to
scrutiny on behalf of corrective service organizations. We take a different
view. The philosophical rationale of penology holds that removal from soci-
ety constitutes the prime punishment inmates must endure (Leopold, 1966).
Access to inmates is supposed to be difficult, that is the point, but access is
often restricted more out of reasons of procedure and practicality than phi-
losophy. Security is the first consideration within the correctional environ-
ment, and efforts to maintain security inform all aspects of prison life and
environment (see Price, 2000). As such, researchers can expect to be searched
before entering and exiting a prison. They will find restrictions limiting what
they can bring in which often extend to bans on computers and recording
equipment as well as other items that may seem innocuous to unseasoned
eyes. Prisons are routinely “locked-down,” denoting a period when inmates
are confined to their cells. In times of high risk, researchers may find that
access to prisons is terminated at short notice. These periods can be unpre-
dictable, ubiquitous, and lead to delays and inevitable timeline changes.
Prisons are specialist environments that are not naturally amenable to
the conditions required for producing high-quality data. While our experi-
ence has been that corrections staff will go to great lengths to provide the
most suitable venue available, data collectors have variously found them-
selves conducting interviews in meeting rooms and clinical examination
rooms, in laundries, on basketball courts, in gymnasiums, and in visiting
areas. Often, these spaces are being used simultaneously for their usual

138
The Prison Journal 99(2)
purpose, and even in more conducive spaces, prison regulations will fre-
quently require a corrections officer to be in hearing and/or visual range of
participants. Under these conditions, a researcher cannot be said to have
true access, as participants may be understandably circumspect when pri-
vacy cannot be guaranteed.
Although this article promised solutions, for this first challenge, we
have few. That prisons are highly rigid, secure environments is a necessary
fact of life, and the difficulties and delays associated with accessing
inmates are par for the course. Researchers must always recognize they are
guests in this environment and comply with all procedures and policies to
ensure safety and security are optimized. A measure of flexibility and fore-
thought will go a long way, as will timelines with some elasticity. Planning
for inevitable delays and clearly specifying requirements relating to data
collection and venue will considerably reduce frustrations commonly
entertained by researchers in this regard.
Communication
Clear communication with corrective services is vital to any successful
prison-based research project. We strongly...

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