Gatekeepers: the experience of conducting research in a prison setting

Nicola Hughes


Beginning a research project can be a daunting task as there is much to plan, organise and consider. One aspect of conducting social research which is often overlooked, but which can have a significant impact on the research, is gaining and maintaining access to the research site. This process begins with identifying who is the relevant person in an organisation to talk to and so beginning the process of negotiating access. These individuals are known as gatekeepers and they are the “individuals . . . that have the power to grant or withhold access to people or situations for the purpose of research” (Burgess, 1984, p. 48). All too often researchers assume that once access has been granted at a management level they can conduct their research unencumbered. However the reality is often very different, as once access has been granted at a macro level, access must then be negotiated and possibly re-negotiated at a micro or local level with the individuals at the coalface.They are the real gatekeepers and their support and assent is essential for the success of the research.

A common miscalculation, made by researchers and students alike, is underestimating the time that it will take to gain access to the site where they wish to conduct their research (Bryman, 2015). Gaining and maintaining access involves forging relationships with key personnel, the gatekeepers, and generating their support and backing for the research. If gatekeepers are to help with our requests for assistance then they must be convinced of the relevance and importance of the research (Crowther-Downey & Fussey, 2013). If a key gatekeeper is moved on or leaves, then the process of forging new relationships with new gatekeepers must begin.Thus, the time it takes to gain access can take considerably longer than originally anticipated. Add to this the possibility of renegotiating access with the personnel on the ground and the original research deadline is quickly extended (McDonald,Townsend, & Waterhouse, 2009).

Despite all the planning engaged in prior to conducting research, research often evolves in the field and a successful researcher must be able to seize the opportunities that arise and to deal with the challenges that occur along the way. Based on my research in prisons this chapter will consider the role of gatekeepers in the research process.

The learning points for the reader are:

  • • Identifying key factors in gaining access to a research site;
  • • Identifying key factors in maintaining access in a research site;
  • • Being adaptable and planning alternative approaches if the gatekeepers prove reluctant to lend their support.

Overview of the research study

My field of interest is criminology and during my time as a social researcher I have conducted research in a number of different settings and with many different groups, such as with incarcerated prisoners, released prisoners, heroin users and victims of domestic abuse. Subsequently I have had many experiences of dealing with gatekeepers, some very positive and some not so positive, and the difficulties and delays that can arise, and the frustrations that inevitably accompany it. In this chapter I will discuss what I have learned from engaging with gatekeepers when conducting research.To do this I will concentrate on a large study I conducted with young males who were incarcerated in a juvenile detention centre.

In 2007 I conducted the fieldwork for a research study involving young males who were due to be released from a juvenile detention centre. The purpose of the research was to establish the expectations and plans of these young men prior to their release and their attitudes towards reoffending on their release. The criteria for inclusion in the study was that participants had to be between the age of 16 and 20 years, had been sentenced to a period of detention and were due to be released within one month. The nature of the offence and the sentence length was not deemed important, though a range of offence types and sentence lengths were identified.

This research was a follow-up study from a quantitative study that established the rate of reimprisonment of prisoners in Ireland over a four-year period (O’Donnell, Baumer, & Hughes, 2008).This was the first time that such a study had been conducted in Ireland and its findings were significant as they highlighted, for the first time, the rate of reoffending among Irish prisoners. The overall rate of reoffending for Irish prisoners was established to be 49.2 percent over a four-year period. One of the findings of the study stood out, and it was this finding that was the catalyst for the larger study of young males due to be released from detention. It was found that the rate of reoffending for younger prisoners was significantly higher than for older prisoners. The rate of reimprisonment for younger prisoners, aged 20 years and younger, was 60 per cent, compared to 40 per cent for prisoners aged 30 years and over.Thus, the reimprisonment rate for younger prisoners was 50 per cent higher than for older prisoners (i.e., 60 per cent compared to 40 per cent).

I wanted to try to understand why the rate of reimprisonment was so much higher for younger prisoners and what their experience of prison had been.

Thus, while the previous quantitative research had established the extent of reoffending among this group, I wanted to try to find out why this was the case. This was achieved by giving the young men an opportunity to speak about their experience of imprisonment and, as they were nearing the end of their sentence, what their plans and expectations for their release were. I was also interested in what their thoughts were on reoffending following their release from prison. Giving a voice to the individual and allowing their voice to be heard, in this case young males who had spent time in prison, is an approach which is particularly strong within the field of desistance in criminology (Farrall & Calverley, 2005; Healy, 2010; Leibrich, 1993; Maruna, 2001). Desistance is when an individual ceases their association with crime, usually following involvement with the criminal justice system. It is also an approach that I, as a social researcher, enjoy, as it provides a unique research perspective and gives a voice to the individual.This was particularly important given that the research participants in this study were all serving a period of imprisonment. For the purpose of my research it was also a good approach, as it built on the knowledge gained from the quantitative research previously referred to.

For this reason, a qualitative approach to the research was taken. In total 60 semi-structured interviews were conducted with young males, who were all within a month of their release from a juvenile detention centre.The 60 young men who agreed to be interviewed were aged between 16 and 20 years at the time of the interview. Parental consent to be interviewed was sought for all participants aged 16 and 17 years. The interviews were conducted in the juvenile detention centre, in a private room away from other prisoners and prison officers. All but one of the interviews (as this participant did not want their interview recorded) were recorded and then transcribed. The interviews lasted on average 60 minutes. The interviews were analysed using thematic analysis, which involves reading and rereading the transcripts in order to identify themes relevant to the research questions (Bryman, 2015).

A year after the interviews had been completed imprisonment information from the prison authorities was extracted in order to establish the extent of reimprisonment of the young men who had been interviewed. This was an important element to the study given the plans and expectations expressed by the young men prior to their release and their thoughts on reoffending.

Many participants described feelings of panic, fear and anxiety on first entering prison. These feelings were soon replaced by a feeling of normality around being in prison, which some participants described as not being ideal if prison is to act as a deterrent. Many participants expressed a desire not to return to prison and to turn their lives around, while some were unsure about what they would do following their release and whether or not they would reoffend. There was also a sizable group of participants who believed that they would commit crime again following their release and that they would return to prison in the future.

The imprisonment data from the prison authorities allowed me to establish who had returned to prison following their release and who had not. Interestingly, there was no clear pattern between the plans and expectations expressed prior to release and whether or not someone reoffended, with those who said they would not reoffend just as likely to reoffend as those who said they would reoffend. Some participants who said they would reoffend following their release were not returned to prison during the follow-up period of the research.

Each of the two elements of the study involved negotiating access with gatekeepers to gain entry to the prison and to gain access to official imprisonment information a year later. In this chapter however the focus will be on negotiating access with gatekeepers within the prison setting.

A brief account of the research does not provide a full description of the complexities involved and the limitations in the measurement and research design. It does, however, provide the reader with an understanding of the research and the important role of gatekeepers in conducting complex research in a prison setting — particularly if they also wish to conduct research in an area or environment which is sensitive and where gatekeepers play an important role.

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