What should researchers know about doing public policy studies inside prisons?

Although researchers know a great deal about conducting fieldwork in the free world, we know far less about effective survey and interview administration practices inside a prison environment. Through the examination of the Assessing Prison Volunteer Programs to Determine What Works (AVP) study, I create a five-component framework in order to explore the prison-based research process. After identifying specific challenges and implications, I produced a set of key findings aimed at helping future researchers navigate through this frequently complicated and intimidating process. As with all human subject studies, prison-based research projects involve Institutional Review Board (IRB) approval. Although an often long and daunting process, the need for IRB approval stems from the long history of coercion, involuntary experimentation, and torture found inside the field of prison-based research. Addressing the challenges of voluntary and anonymous participation greatly increases as respondent agency decreases inside correctional institutions. Additionally, prison-based research projects often come with public funding which typically includes match requirements, ultimately increasing the number and influence of stakeholders. The costs of conducting research inside a prison-setting can also increase compared to studies in the free world due to the remote setting of many facilities and their unpredictable schedules. Although participant incentives can increase response rates, correctional institutions often prohibit them. As a result, researchers rely on other aspects of the project such as room location, and prison staff support to increase response rates. Lastly, prison-based research projects require adequate training well beyond that of studies in the free world. In addition to the expected safety requirements, researchers must be keenly aware of other issues of concern such as the long distances we often must travel while working inside, prison specific formal and informal rules, which frequently change without notification, and inmate manipulation. Given the unique, albeit often intimidating, insulated, and secluded nature of correctional institutions, gaining insight surrounding the research process itself will help future researchers understand what they should know about doing public policy studies inside prisons.