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.
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.