In This Issue

Tips and advice for conducting research in prisons

A brief guide to gaining access to inmates to conduct relevant and timely research.

By Jon Mandracchia, PhD
I have heard repeatedly that incarcerated populations present an amazing opportunity for research. I believe this is absolutely true, as the incarcerated population and environment are like no other, and because incarcerated offenders (IOs) are underrepresented in the literature. However, there is a reason for this underrepresentation: conducting research with IOs can be really difficult. Researchers may face challenges from their own institutional review board (IRB) and from the correctional system, which may result in rejection or delays for a research project; needless to say, this can be frustrating and discouraging for researchers. I have not always been successful in gaining access to IOs for research, but I have learned a lot along the way, through both my successes and failures, about how to increase the likelihood of being granted access.
Anticipate and avoid criticism (from your IRB and from the correctional system)
  • When your procedures or constructs may be perceived as controversial or harmful, provide reasoning for any risks, and if possible, supporting research to show that what you propose to do won’t harm participants.
  • Acknowledge any risks and provide a clear plan for how to deal with problems that arise.
Be flexible
  • State your research procedures explicitly but also build in “wiggle room” for correctional systems/institutions to determine procedures that will work best for them (e.g., group vs. individual format, group size, specific setting/location within the institution).
  • Clearly communicate to the warden/officers that you are willing to work around their schedule (e.g., time of day, day of week, running several groups per day vs. only one group per week).
Minimize work for the institution/staff
  • Inform the corrections staff that you will bring all supplies/materials you will need (e.g., do not assume they will provide you with pencils/pens).
  • Know in advance what you can and cannot bring into the facility and provide to the IOs.
  • For participant recruitment, ask if they would prefer you to post a sign-up sheet in advance vs. having preexisting group of offenders brought in (e.g., by housing area).
Contacting Corrections Systems/Institution
  • Look online first for any information already available (e.g., person in charge of coordinating research, any relevant research forms and policies).
  • Start with a phone call — it’s more personal than email and you may get an immediate response. Remember that wardens and other officials may be out of their office frequently and may not always remember to return your phone call.
Find an “insider” with which to collaborate
  • Many correctional psychologists are interested in research but do not have time or resources (e.g., statistical programs) to conduct research on their own.
  • Some wardens or other corrections officials may be connected with universities or other research institutions — use those connections if possible.
Finally, if your proposal gets rejected, consider resubmitting to another correctional system (e.g., a different state, a local jail). For many researchers, gaining access to IOs for research is, in and of itself, a victory. Be sure to celebrate your success.