Post by Ana Ballesteros-Pena, international PhD in Sociology from the University of Barcelona (Spain). Her research examines female incarceration in the Spanish Penitentiary System with specific focus on the analysis of prison policies implemented over the past decade. Her research interests include punishment and social control, gender, prisons, migration and border control. You can follow her on Twitter @anaballes.

Social research is never carried out under ‘perfect’ conditions. Daily life is multidimensional, crossed by family, work, friends, leisure time, studies and is full of unexpected situations. When I decided to do my PhD (part-time) on women’s prisons while I was in a full time job outside academia and with very few possibilities of changing these circumstances, I had not seriously considered the emotional and physical impact or the challenges I would have to face during my research. On the contrary, I was utterly excited for the beginning of a long-term project. 

Building on Mary Bosworth’s previous contribution on secondary trauma and research, in this post I would like to share some of the feelings, fears, anxieties, dilemmas and challenges that I experienced during my fieldwork.

Organising fieldwork

I decided to undertake my fieldwork in three different prisons in Spain. While two were located in the region I live, the third was in a different region, around 350 km from home. How would I deal with the distance? Personal anxieties and dilemmas, i.e. how to juggle fieldwork with my personal life and job commitments, emerged while I was still outside and far from the field. During those first stages, I had to discuss with my partner the potential implications of fieldwork and negotiate with my employer flexible working hours. Following these complex discussions, I organised my fieldwork as follows: a) I would spend two concentrated periods of around one week in the furthest prison by using my holidays and b) I would visit every one of the other two prisons once a week after work for around 9/10 months.

Access to prison

External view of one prison in Spain
In Spain, since the 1990s, prisons have been structured in similar ways. They share a similar system of security consisting of a set of controls between the main entrance and the prisoners’ departments. Two of the three prisons where I conducted my fieldwork followed this model. In the main entrance I had to show my ID to a prison officer and / or to a military police officer (Spanish Civil Guard) and explain the goals of my visit. The authorisation of entry was in one of the many folders on their desk. The first time I had to wait a long time because my document was in the last folder. Afterwards, I always informed the staff that my authorisation was in the last page of the last folder. Each time they ignored me and looked through all the pages. Each time, I felt a wave of impotent rage. When I finally reached the women’s unit I had to take some time to clear my mind and start my interviews.

Access to informants

One of my biggest concerns when I was about to start my fieldwork was whether prisoners would be willing to participate in my research. I often imagined myself being alone with my questions. My experience of recruitment in each prison was different. In the farthest prison, fieldwork had to be organised in advance. There, the prison authorities informed the inmates about my research and asked them to participate before I arrived there in order not to lose valuable time. This arrangement, which raised a number of ethical and methodological dilemmas, had consequences for my relationship with the inmates as they felt they ‘had’ to participate.

In the other two prisons, the process was different. Even though prison staff had circulated information about my research, I would frequently recruit participants by mingling with them in their daily activities. This was a source of great anxiety, as I had to overcome my shyness, my mood and thoughts, as well as personal concerns. Furthermore, I had to answer a lot of questions about myself (e.g. purpose of my research, reasons of my interest, etc.)

The interviews

The most challenging aspect to conducting interviews was not the process itself, but the time after, coming back home in my car after having listened to personal stories, unfair circumstances, concerns, frustrations, anger, sadness, not only related to prison life, but also to their lives outside. I was aware of my inability as a researcher to help in most situations. Still, it was difficult to manage my feelings when I got home, went to sleep and came back to the office the next morning to deal with a completely different topic.

Time in prison

Internal view of one prison in Spain
When I arrived home from the prisons closer to me, I normally drank a beer with my partner and shared with him some of the stories, feelings, fears, and anecdotes of the day. This small routine proved to be extremely helpful. However, when I was conducting fieldwork in the other prison, at night I was alone in a small apartment. Organising interviews in advance made the period of fieldwork more efficient in some regards, but made it impossible to talk informally to some of my participants before or after interviews. My interviews there ended up being repetitive and at times tiring. Security provisions at that institution meant that I had to go through a number of long security controls twice a day. By the end of several days of visiting this prison, I was desperate to finish the interviews and drive back home. I was always mentally exhausted, with a high level of anxiety and anger. Furthermore, after leaving this prison, I always faced ethical and methodological dilemmas about the impact of this scheme of fieldwork on my research. These dilemmas, although common for prison researchers, became more evident and problematic for me in these occasions. I refer to the complex meaning of the ‘freedom of participation’ on research inside prison and the fear of being critical of the prison system when an inmate feels that her participation and opinions could modify, even slightly, her opportunities or time in prison.


Doing research in prison, detention centers or other spaces of confinement come with a set of emotions and feelings that have to be discussed, shared and reflected upon. While talking about our feelings during fieldwork, social researchers may seem somewhat self-indulgent, the scarcity of spaces to be open about our emotions and how these affect our work, make it necessary to find the opportunities to vent and reflect upon all the stages of the research. From a feminist criminology approach, it is also highly meaningful to break up with a traditional concept of ‘scientific neutrality’ in which distance from participants, emotional detachment and objectivity are key features. On the contrary, I argue that we need to recognise our own emotional vulnerability and the impact of our involvement in the complex realities we analyse. In doing so, we will contribute to the construction of social research as a genuinely humane activity engaged with social justice.

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How to cite this blog post (Harvard style)

Ballesteros-Pena, A. (2018) Emerging Feelings and Emotions during Fieldwork inside Prisons. Available at: (Accessed [date]).