Detail from "the second line," a painting by Bob Graham. For more about the artist, click here.

Online Program

Conducting Research with Incarcerated Populations
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*Ellen Schrader Stutts, RTI International 

Keywords: inmate, prison, jail, corrections research

Incarcerated subjects have always been a difficult population to contact and interview because of difficulties gaining access to the facilities where they are incarcerated. Incarcerated subjects are not only a concern for researchers who routinely conduct corrections research, but also for researchers who conduct longitudinal studies, since these subjects may end up in correctional facilities at some point during data collection. Many researchers find themselves in the position of having incarcerated subjects in their sample but having no idea of the necessary steps to gain access to those sample members. Researchers who plan to interview incarcerated subjects have many challenges to contend with in addition to gaining access to correctional facilities, including instrument development, IRB issues, finding interviewing staff willing and able to collect data in a corrections setting and logistics once at the jail/prison. Instrument development issues include determination of mode (e.g., are computers allowed in the facility or will a paper and pencil (PAPI) questionnaire be necessary) as well as designing questions for a traditionally lower literacy population. IRB issues include the need for a prisoner advocate on the IRB committee, the possibility of having to coordinate IRBs from various state entities, and measures to ensure confidentiality and deter coercion of inmates. Access issues involve working through a chain of authority (prisons generally have more levels of bureaucracy to negotiate than jails), obtaining adequate interviewing space, and being able to gain access to inmates in limited access areas. Staffing issues include identifying interviewers willing to work in correctional facilities and negotiating background check requirements for the interviewers at various facilities. Each of these issues must be addressed well in advance of data collection in order to successfully navigate through corrections bureaucracy and to gain access to inmates. This paper will address these issues based on experience gained from collecting data from inmates in a large national study.

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