Interviewing service users in prison

Interviewing service users in prison creates logistical and ethical challenges, says Helen Brookes

babyAs part of the NSPCC’s commitment to equality and diversity, we aim to involve a wide range of service users in our evaluations, making the process as accessible as possible.

Service users who have attended a programme in prison are particularly hard to reach.

In 2014, I recruited and interviewed a sample of 18 parents who had completed the NSPCC's Baby Steps perinatal programme whilst serving a custodial sentence in 1 of 4 prisons in the UK.

I wanted to find out about their experience of the course and whether it needed to be tailored for a prison context.

Conducting the research presented 3 unique challenges: each one highlights considerations that must be taken into account when working with service users in prison.

Gaining access to prisoners for interviews

Negotiating and organising access to prisoners for interviews took much longer than expected. Up to several months in some cases due to complex authorisation systems within the prison. 

Further delays were caused by the rigorous prison security process. I had to send copies of photo identification along with details of any items that would be taken into the prison so they could be logged. The make and serial number of the digital recorder that I would be using had to be sent in advance, for example. 

One prison wouldn't allow any equipment to be brought in at all, which meant that a colleague had to come and take notes of the interviews instead of them being recorded. 

It's important to build these factors into your timescale for the research process. 

The short-term nature of prison populations

Once access had been granted, I had a list of who was available for interview. I quickly realised that a number of the participants I'd hoped to meet had either been transferred to another prison or released. 

The prison wasn't able to provide forwarding addresses due to data protection, so we couldn't contact them. 

I investigated whether it would be possible to obtain their addresses through the probation service, but this proved difficult because they were from all over the UK and it would have involved dealing with a different service for each individual.

Also, as the prison wasn't able to provide details on their crime, it would have been difficult to complete a researcher safety risk assessment before interviewing them in the community. 

Additional ethical concerns

There are also ethical challenges when conducting research with service users in prison. 

Getting informed consent

The process for obtaining informed consent from this vulnerable group had been carefully planned and reviewed by the NSPCC ethics committee, but it was compromised by internal prison practices over which we had no control. 

For example, NSPCC practitioners who delivered the Baby Steps programme had explained evaluation to participants at the first session, providing them with materials to read before asking them to sign the consent form.

Before I conducted the evaluation interviews, I asked prison staff to approach the people who had consented to find out if they were still happy to meet. In practice, this didn’t always happen. When I arrived to conduct interviews, some participants were unclear about who I was, or why they were meeting me. In some cases, they were disappointed because they were hoping their visitor was coming to provide much needed help and advice on housing or legal issues.

There is a limit to how much you can influence this process as a researcher, but it’s important to stress to prison staff how important it is that they support the consent process.

Preventing distress

As prison is a stressful and isolating environment, there is also more chance of participants becoming distressed as the result of an interview (even if the material covered isn’t particularly sensitive).

In the community, I would usually refer interviewees on, either to local support services, a telephone helpline or a website for online support. These channels are not available to prisoners.

Many participants either didn’t know what support there was within the prison or were reluctant to access it due to fears about confidentiality. It is crucial to find out what is available to them within the prison, so you can refer them appropriately.

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Baby Steps in a prison context: parents' perspective

Read the findings from Helen's sample interviews in this evaluation of Baby Steps - A relationships-based perinatal education programme. 

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