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Challenges of Conducting Research in Prisons

Date Published
March 25, 2012

Sidebar to the article Study Raises Questions About Psychological Effects of Solitary Confinement by Philip Bulman, Marie Garcia and Jolene Hernon.

Prison is a self-contained environment in which everyone's activity is tightly regulated and monitored. Simply getting access to a prison can be difficult for researchers. Furthermore, prisoners are regarded as a vulnerable population for research study purposes. The Department of Health and Human Services regulations on human subjects protection designate prisoners, along with other groups such as children and pregnant women, as especially vulnerable. The regulations require additional protections for prisoners. It is critical that the consent form state that a prisoner's participation in research is voluntary and will not affect parole or correctional programming decisions.[1] Research subjects must be told of the potential risks and benefits of their participation, and they must receive enough understandable information to make a voluntary decision. Informed consent and voluntary participation are fundamental ingredients of ethical research. Consequently, researchers who want to conduct prison research face heightened scrutiny from institutional review boards.

In addition, in correctional settings, it is difficult to implement rigorous evaluation designs that could isolate the effects of one factor and provide completely comparable groups of inmates for a study, such as randomized trials. As a result, researchers must often rely on weaker, quasi-experimental designs with comparison groups that may not completely rule out competing hypotheses to explain apparent differences and outcomes.

Despite the challenges involved, researchers have completed a variety of studies of prison life, using everything from mailed surveys to personal interviews to obtain information. Having outsiders arrive in a closed environment may in itself affect the perceptions of prisoners about the institutions they live in, and the effects may be larger still for those in solitary confinement. Researchers arriving to interview inmates is a major event in the monotonous routine of prison life, especially for an inmate who is in isolation 23 hours a day. Researchers have examined a variety of factors that could affect their subjects and the research.

One such factor is the Hawthorne effect, in which social and behavioral researchers' interactions with and observation of subjects being studied affects the subjects' behavior. The name stems from a study of factory workers at Western Electric's Hawthorne plant in Illinois in the late 1920s and early 1930s. Researchers set out to see what effect, if any, changes in lighting would have on the workers' productivity. They found that regardless of the changes made, productivity increased. They decided that the productivity increased because the workers saw themselves as special participants in an experiment.

Recent examinations of the Hawthorne data question the original conclusions and suggest there was either no effect or a placebo effect.[2] Perhaps the Hawthorne effect was present in the Colorado study of administrative segregation. If such an effect were present, the prisoners might be expected to have a more positive view of their situation by virtue of being study participants.

Additionally, people in isolation might be more inclined to participate in a study simply because it would involve receiving attention from an interviewer.

On the other hand, inmates may be wary of researchers. Establishing trust in order to collect accurate information is a prime concern for researchers, who know that inmates may withhold information or tell researchers only what they think the researchers want to hear.

About This Article

This article appeared in NIJ Journal Issue 269, March 2012 as a sidebar to the article Study Raises Questions About Psychological Effects of Solitary Confinement by Philip Bulman, Marie Garcia and Jolene Hernon.

[note 1] Some experts believe that prisoners can never give true informed consent because they live in an environment in which they have little or no freedom to make an informed decision.

[note 2] Steven D. Levitt and John A. List, for example, point out that statistical methods available at the time did not account for the impact of a number of other variables — such as the day of the week on which the light bulbs were changed. Levitt and List conclude that there was no "Hawthorne effect" and that the changes in productivity can be attributed to other factors. Levitt, Steven D., and John A. List, Was There Really a Hawthorne Effect at the Hawthorne Plant? An Analysis of the Original Illumination Experiments, The National Bureau of Economic Research, NBER Working Paper no. 15016. May 2009. See also a summary of the research in The Economist, "Questioning the Hawthorne Effect: Light Work" (June 2009).

National Institute of Justice, "Challenges of Conducting Research in Prisons," March 25, 2012, nij.ojp.gov:
Date Created: March 25, 2012