Accessing inmates, a vulnerable research population
Oct 14 2013
As if iron-clad doors and barred windows aren’t barrier enough, prison facilities are also wrapped in a thick layer of red tape. I realized this fact as I began the process to gain research access to one of our state’s most vulnerable populations: inmates.
I was ecstatic to be assigned to work this semester in a student team tackling the issue of disseminating news to prisoners. I anticipated waltzing right through the front doors of the Orange County Correctional Facility or Central Prison in Raleigh, N.C., to start asking questions. I started watching prison documentaries and dramas, which only fueled this determination.
The first step of conducting research in the Reese News Lab is getting permission to do so from UNC’s Institutional Review Board. Prisoners are one of several populations that are considered vulnerable by the IRB. Also in this vulnerable population are pregnant mothers, children and fetuses. Conducting research among these groups requires a more exhaustive process in the research application to protect potential subjects.
Prisoners are considered vulnerable for several reasons, according to the National Commission of IRB. Inmates have limited free choice and minor inducements offered to participants might be disproportionately valuable to a prisoner who has limited belongings and activities. The potential exists for suffering of repercussions or provision of incentives within the institution, which could coerce their participation. Confidentiality within a prison facility is minimal due to limited privacy and audio and visual surveillance. And of course, when conducting research from human subjects, confidentiality is key to ethical research.
For these reasons, researchers seeking access to inmates for study purposes must prove to their own institution that their study will not harm these people.
We hope to ask prisoners about their news consumption habits and interest in current events. We want to test the desirability of our product and the first step is asking inmates if they care about the news and what news media is already available to them. Once we collect and analyze this information, we can begin to tweak our prototype to reflect the interests of our target audience, the prisoners. We turned to prison officials to find out how to be allowed to collect information from the inmates they house and protect.
Once we began this process, it dawned on me that the Department of Corrections has its own set of regulations for researchers. A DOC administrator directed me to a complicated document that I transcribed onto a poster board to make sense of the relevant steps, dates and boards. The process for the DOC is even more exhaustive than that of IRB and requires us to get approval from our own institution before starting the department’s process. Then, our proposal must work its way through four different panels, boards and organizations within the prison system, some of which meet only once a month.
This long process which requires researchers to justify their research and vet it for potentially harmful effects makes sense. Not to mention, that the prison system can’t ethically bombard inmates with constant surveys, research and focus groups.
If we can’t talk to prisoners by Pitch Day in early December, we’ll pursue other approaches to finding out what might interest prisoners. We’re already corresponding with family members of prisoners and hope to reach out to organizations for ex-convicts, for example. For now, we will continue to trudge through the red tape in hopes of directly asking inmates questions about their interest in news. This research will help us design our prototype to better serve the needs of inmates, hopefully having positive educational and civic impacts for this population.