Nick Hardwick: experts by experience: prisoners as researchers, ethical and practical problems…

Professor Nick Hardwick, Royal Holloway, University of London, Tuesday 22nd August 2017, room C16, Girton College, Cambridge, with response from Andy Whiteford, University of Plymouth.

Abstract: This presentation will focus on presenting and leading discussion on the possible ethical and practical challenges on working with prisoners as researchers – as participants rather than subjects – and what some of those solutions to those challenges might be.

What will the prisoner get out of it? Who benefits? What will they be paid for instance? – The academic will be paid, why not the prisoner? What risks would prisoners be subject to? -Psychological and physical risks from you, other prisoners, staff or themselves. Should prisoner voices be ‘balanced’ with those of victims or staff? I am not sure (yet) what literature there is about the specific issues of using prisoners to do research in prisons but there is plenty of literature about using prisoners in sensitive peer-supporter roles that perhaps have parallels. I will draw too on some of the issues we considered when suggestions were made to me as Chief Inspector of Prisons that we should use prisoners in an organised way as prison inspectors.

We should consider too the practical problems of using prisoners as researchers – the practicalities of confinement, confidentiality and the priority of survival in institutions in crisis.

These challenges can be overcome – or at least most of them – but only if we think about them in a clear and honest way. I hope the sessions will be most useful if I begin by presenting some of these issues in more depth and then we look together for solutions in smaller groups.


Nick Hardwick Presentation ISRF 22-8-17

Response from Andy: Professor Nick Hardwick’s input came at the early stages of the residential and was well timed. Having been chair of the Parole Board and Chief Inspector of Prisons he was able to share some valuable insight and ideas providing critical context to our work in considering the transformative potential of participatory styles of research with ‘marginalised/hard to reach’ populations, including offenders.  The presentation was a welcome mix of theoretical, empirical and ethical perspectives that combined to not only inform but challenge and question. Nick’s  central theme was how and  to what extent increased prisoner involvement in prison reporting, monitoring and inspection processes can, should and are being developed. It was significant to us as practitioner/researchers from the social sciences that these the ideas were motivated  by commitment to human rights and interesting to consider ways in which such a perspective can be authenticated and rendered operational.

Nick  was clear from the outset that any discussion regarding work with prisoners, in any capacity must be built upon an accurate and realistic appreciation of both the prison system and the prisoner experience within. The principle underpinning this assertion clearly has general applicability and relevance to any sphere of research but we were reminded how essential this is if we are to engage and collaborate with prisoners in any meaningful sense.  A lack of, or even a partial level of cultural awareness can result in unintended consequences impacting on the status, safety and progress of a prisoner’s life within custody; a point reiterated by other speakers and members of the research group as the week progressed.

Nick conceded that resources are returning to prisons in recent years with some renewed recruitment. However, It is no surprise that with a 22% reduction in operational staff between March 2010 – June 2017, prisons are currently working at 99.04% of their operational level; the loss of some of most experienced staff impacting on both services to and safety of prisoners. Nick  linked the 78% increase in deaths in custody to prison conditions along with increased violence, self-harm, a staggering 23% increase in suicide and a renewed demand for psychoactive substances. These figures and stories, combined with images from within prisons, further reminded us to respect the culture, context and lived reality of the people we aspire to work with (and the significance of any invitation from us, to them, to do so) and challenged any remaining liberal, ‘posh’ notions of prison reform we may have had.

The discussions regarding practical and ethical implications of conducting research in prisons and working with prisoners as researchers was welcome.  Notwithstanding the limitations imposed by the secure environment, movement within the prison, availability of prisoners etc., there were other considerations related to the research process such as confidentiality and data storage to discuss. We identified payment as a critical issue in terms of responding to some of the dilemmas and concerns regarding prisoner role and status.

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