HM Prison Service has a complex and ambiguous relationship with the academic community: Researchers must gain access to prisons in order to explore the lives and experiences of those behind the walls, but how is this done? Once a project has been approved, how can researchers gain and maintain the trust of key stakeholders in the prison system?

Credit: kIM DARam via flickr
The Oxford Centre for Criminology recently convened its second Knowledge Exchange seminar hosting two established experts in the field: Jamie Bennett and Ben Crewe – to discuss their experiences of gaining access to prisons in England and Wales. Both speakers started by agreeing that political culture and the wider penal system influence the management and institutional aims of individual prisons. Academics are at the mercy of this fact to some extent, albeit indirectly. Bennett therefore stressed the importance of tailoring research proposals to the strategic priorities of the National Offender Management Service (NOMS), while Crewe suggested that tight resources and limited structural capacities are likely to affect what research methodologies can be used. Ethnographic studies, for instance, may be frowned upon in prisons where staffing is a problem, though governors may be receptive to unobtrusive quantitative work. As such, proposed research of an exploratory nature ought to be carefully formulated: How are key terms defined, and why is this research worth staff and inmates’ time? In short, how does a proposed research project meets the prisons’ business needs? Many senior staff members are not familiar with how and why academic research is conducted; therefore it is essential that the purposes and methods of any study are made clear from the outset.

A related concern for researchers is knowing how to investigate issues which are politically sensitive, or which risk exposing a prison to negative media coverage. This is a challenging issue for researchers, who often gravitate towards uncomfortable and challenging subjects. With this in mind, Crewe warned against the use of polemical or inaccurate language in proposals. Further, he stressed that work with a clear activist orientation will – in many cases – compromise research access or inhibit publication. These broader issues of initial access are accompanied by ongoing issues relating to trust, reputation and relationships with key stakeholders within the system. Both Bennett and Crewe agreed on the importance of being pragmatic, ethically sensitive and showing appreciation to all participants.

Once inside, staff members are likely to tolerate researchers who are not ‘seen’ and not ‘heard’. As Bennett put it, “at the end of a project, it’s a compliment to be told you were invisible”. Senior management has serious concerns about data loss and confidentiality, therefore prudence throughout the research project is essential. Similarly, interviews and data access ought to be organised prior to visits. In sum, prison research is an ongoing negotiation between an outsider and an institution, with many ethical and practical issues presenting themselves along the way. Trying to anticipate potential problems is the best way to ensure that a project runs as smoothly as possible.

Researchers need a range of skills, both hard and soft. They need to be able to negotiate access, build strong relationships with staff, and be practical without being overbearing. Bennett and Crewe’s helpful remarks are particularly welcome at a time when prisons are highly bureaucratic, remaining elusive to many young researchers. Taking their advice on board, the UK’s strong tradition of prison research can hopefully continue.