Training and preparation

As would be expected, a researcher will come against a number of barriers when wanting to conduct research in a prison. There are obviously rigorous ethical applications to consider, and the issue of security. There are also a number of various training exercises to complete before being able to work in the environment, even as a researcher, even for a short period of time. The training exercises are exactly the same as those that other staff have to complete, and are undertaken alongside new members of staff which gives aninsight into various staff roles from the outset. As well as training, it is beneficial to gain rapport from the outset with various members of staff working in the environment, and a good way to do this is to ask to shadow a shift. This was a skill learned in an earlier study of a similar nature, undertaken in custody suites called ACCEPT (Birch et al. 2015), where staff observed a number of night shifts in order to understand the barriers staff face hands on. It also gave an opportunity to discuss with staff, the intricacies of the research, and identify small opportunities within the “regime” that the research could be slipped in.

Ethical approval

Ethical approval will need to be sought from the university itself in the first instance, then by HMPPS; either by IRAS or the excel application depending on the subject of the research, and the amount of prisons access is required to. The turnaround is very quick in comparison to NHS ethical approval, and no meeting is required to be attended; however, the questions asked are similar to that of NHS approval, and some time will need to be set aside to complete the application. An important point to note for ethical approval in a prison is that co-production is essential from day one. The first step, even prior to submitting ethical approval documents, is getting the governor on board with the research.

Security training

Regardless of the reason an individual is beginning work in a prison (nurse, researcher, prison officer, etc.), breakaway training is required. The training involves a mix of taught and practical sessions around protecting yourself inside the prison. The day ends with a practical scenario to complete in a set up threatening situation.

Breakaway training

Breakaway training is a physical training day. undertaken by any new member of staff. The training is a mix of taught, and physical activities. Various elements of self-defence are taught by experienced prison staff, and as researchers conducting interviews, useful tips about how to conduct yourself, with your own safety in mind. It is useful to note that during these training sessions, research staff are not treated any differently; the training is given the same as if the researcher is a prison officer, and the researchers’ behaviour must reflect this.

Key training

To obtain access to keys when undertaking research in a prison is as one would expect, regulated. Extra security is required, fingerprints to access the

Co-producing research in a prison 97 key cabinets, training around the different types of keys, and training around how to carry keys is also necessary. There are locked doors and gates every couple of feet, and this can be a new experience if it is the first time working in such an environment. A good researcher will familiarise themselves with the layout of the prison, and how to handle keys, so as to work well with prison staff and work independently, in order to carry out the research efficiently.


Some prisons require conditioning training to be completed. This is intended to give the individual the skills to interact with prisoners in a manner that does not threaten their own personal safety. It considers issues such as clothing and talking about personal issues or family. This can be an important training element for a researcher, as conducting interviews often leads to informal conversations, where the interviewer may let their guard down.

Entrance to the prison

Rigorous security clearance has to be undertaken for any RA to work in any prison. As mentioned above, this can include a whole range of different requirements. Security clearance sets an RA up as a visitor and a pass is issued for the prison. This pass stays at the prison. Therefore, it can still be time consuming to gain entry to the prison, and any RA should be prepared for that. The gate to a prison can be busy with various visiting legal counsel, or simply a delivery. Those individuals will need to be vetted by staff adequately to gain access. Therefore, to collect a pass from the staff to enter the prison can involve a lot of waiting around.


To conduct research effectively and efficiently in the prison setting, co-pro-duction work with the prison staff, and prisoners themselves is vital. Ver-schuere sums this up as: “We define co-production ... rather narrowly, as the involvement of individual citizens and groups in public service delivery” (Verschuere et al. 2012, p. 1086). The concept of co-production is not a new one. As Professor Newbury-Birch wrote: “research in the criminal justice system is difficult. There are a lot of competing parts to the equation including experience and expertise, values and judgement, resources, policy context, habits and traditions, pressure groups as well as research evidence” (Newbury-Birch 2016b, p. 130); and therefore in research sites such as prisons, this involves working closely with a range of stakeholders, all the way from the prison governor, down through wing managers, prison officers and all the way through to peer prisoners, or listeners as they are sometimes known as to enable the eclectic mix of skills to be utilised effectively.

By taking a co-production approach one avoids the problem of:

Academics and practitioners inhabiting very different worlds. Practitioners grapple with complex social and economic issues on behalf of citizens and service users. Their actions are subject to public scrutiny and their decisions are influenced by a host of factors, often including intense political pressures. By contrast, academics enjoy an unusual degree of autonomy and many have no interest in addressing “real world” problems.

(Martin 2010, p. 2)

There are incentives on both sides when doing any type of co-production or public engagement work; however, the benefits and barriers must be thought about thoroughly when designing the research. By working with the prison staff, an insight into feasibility of the actual data collection is given from the outset, and plans put into place to bulletproof against any issues that may arise. Academics simply cannot understand prison regimes without this element. There is a brilliant paper discussing the 12 restorative justice projects that took place in both the UK and Australia (Sherman et al. 2015, p. 508), which discusses the intricacies of conducting research with practitioners and mentions: "Magistrates’ court clerks were not so cooperative. While two small RCTs in Northumbrian Magistrates’ Courts were eventually completed, their samples were only achieved by the dogged persistence of the Northumbria Manager, Dorothy Newbury-Birch”, which sums up the difficulties in one sentence.

The next phase of the PR1SM-A study has recently started, a pilot feasibility study named APPRAISE (A two-arm parallel group individually randomised prison pilot study of a male remand alcohol intervention for self-efficacy enhancement), moving the work forward to measure how feasible it is to carry out screening and brief interventions with male remand prisoners.

Five top tips to take forward

To conclude this chapter; five take-home top tips for conducting research with prison staff, whilst working in the prison environment would be:

  • Business as usual. Treat the data collection in the same way you would any other environment. Yes, it is prison, and vigilance is needed. However, when interacting with participants, the situation is no different to approaching someone in A&E or a school, for example. You have to fit in as effortlessly with staff as you would in any other setting. Building rapport from the outset is key, ask about regimes, ask how they prefer you work and ask if you are unsure of anything!
  • Buddy up. Always have a "buddy”. Essential in any type of research. However, in this situation, someone who understands the prison

Co-producing research in a prison 99 environment. If prison is a new environment to the researcher, there will be things witnessed that can be eye opening, being able to offload to someone is a huge help. Prison staff become used to the noise, smell and events that take place, to maintain an air of confidence, and maintain rapport, a buddy will help.

  • Communicate! Explain to all members of prison staff who you are, what you are doing, and if it helps, which rooms you are using so someone is aware of where you are at all times. From experience, if all staff, including any drug and alcohol workers, or other type of support workers are not sure what it is the project entails, you may come across some tension; breaking this barrier from the outset can be very helpful for both parties.
  • Personal alarm. Not all prison staff carry a personal alarm. However, they are available, and, as researchers, wearing one (they simply clip on to your belt) has no impact other than enhanced safety and an enhanced sense of confidence. Also, from experience, officers on the wing will feel more at ease if they have less to worry about in terms of safety.
  • Patience. It can be timely to merely get through the gate. It is important to remember that this is exactly the same for all other members of prison staff, and if they can deal with it day in, day out, so can a researcher. Then there can be a number of alarms going off one after another; or a “lockdown” meaning the research will have to be put on hold until the issue is resolved. There can also be certain epidemics taking place, for example, when there are issues with new NPS such as Spice, security can tighten and every member of staff can be searched thoroughly - extending that time at the gate further. It is also worth noting, if paperwork is needed for research, such as questionnaires, these need to go through security scanners, again holding entry up. Patience really is a virtue.


NPC (2012.). Safe management and use of controlled drugs in prison health in England. United Kingdom. London: National Institute for Health and Clinical Excellence, NICE.

Babor, T, De La Fuente, J., Saunders, J. and Grant, M. (1989). AUDIT. The Alcohol Use Disorders Identification Test, guidelines for use in primary health care. Geneva, World Health Organisation.

Birch. J., Scott, S., Newbury-Birch. D.. Brennan. A.. Brown, H., Coulton. S.. Gilvarry, E., Hickman, M., McColl, E.. McGovern, R., Muirhead, C. and Kaner, E. (2015.). “A pilot feasibility trial of alcohol screening and brief intervention in the police custody setting (ACCEPT): study protocol for a cluster randomised controlled trial.” Pilot and Feasibility Studies 1:6.

Coulton, S., Newbury-Birch. D., Cassidy, P., Dale, V.. Deluca, P., Gilvarry. E., Godfrey, C., Heather, N., Kaner, E., Oyefeso, A., Parrott, S., Phillips, T, Shepherd, J. and Drummond, C. (2012.). “Screening for alcohol use in criminal justice settings: an exploratory study.” Alcohol Alcohol 47(4): 423 427.

Craig, R. Dieppe. P.Macintyre, S.Michie, S.Nazareth. I.Petticrew, M. and Medical Research Council (2008). ‘’Developing and evaluating complex interventions: the new Medical Research Council guidance." BMJ 337(7676): 979 983.

Fazel, S.D. and Baillargeon, J. P. (2011). "The health of prisoners.” Lancet, 377(9769): 956-965.

Government., U. (2012.). Health and Social Care Act (2012). London: Stationery Office.

Holloway. A., Landale, S., Ferguson, J., Newbury-Birch. D., Parker. R., Smith. P. and Sheikh, A. (2017). “Alcohol Brief Interventions (ABIs) for male remand prisoners: protocol for development of a complex intervention and feasibility study (PRISM-A).” BMJ Open 7(4): e014561.

Kok, G.. Gottlieb, N.H.. Peters, G.-J.Y, Mullen, P.D., Parcel, G.S., Ruiter, R.A.C., Fernández, M.E., Markham, C. and Bartholomew, L.K. (2016). “A taxonomy of behaviour change methods: an Intervention Mapping approach.” Health Psychology Review 10(3): 297-312.

Library, H. o. C. (2018). Briefing Paper. ‘‘UK Prison Population Statistics". Number CBP-04334.

Mah, D. Y, Prakash, A., Porras. D., Fynn-Thompson, E, DeWitt. E.S. and Banka. P. (2018). “Coronary artery compression from epicardial leads: More common than we think.” Heart rhythm 15(10): 1439-1447.

Martin, S. (2010). “Co-production of social research: strategies for engaged scholarship.” Public Money & Management 30(4): 211-218.

Newbury-Birch, D., McGovern. R.. Birch, J., O’Neill. G.. Kaner, H., Sondhi. A. and Lynch, K. (2016a). "A rapid systematic review of what we know about alcohol use disorders and brief interventions in the criminal justice system.” International Journal oj Prisoner Health. 12(1): 57-70.

Newbury-Birch, D., Coulton, S.. Bland, M., Cassidy, R, Dale. V., Deluca, R, Gilvarry, E., Godfrey, C., Heather, N., Kaner, E.. McGovern, R.. Myles, J., Oyefeso, A., Parrott, S., Patton, R., Perryman. K., Phillips, T, Shepherd, J. and Drummond, C. (2014.). “Alcohol screening and brief interventions for offenders in the probation setting (SIPS Trial): A pragmatic multicentre cluster randomised controlled trial,.” Alcohol Alcohol. 49(5): 540-554.

Newbury-Birch, D.. Ferguson, J., Landale, S., Giles, E.L.. McGeechan, G.J., Gill, C., Stockdale, K. and Holloway, A. (2018.). “A systematic review of the efficacy of alcohol interventions for incarcerated people.” Alcohol Alcohol 53(4): 412-425.

Newbury-Birch, D.. Harrison, B., Brown, N. and Kaner. E. (2009.). “Sloshed and sentenced: a prevalence study of alcohol use disorders amongst offenders in the North East of England. .” International Journal of Prisoner Health. 5(4): 201-211.

Newbury-Birch, D.. McGeechan. G. and Holloway, A. (2016b). “Climbing down the steps from the ivory tower: how UK academics and practitioners need to work together on alcohol studies. Editorial.” International Journal of Prisoner Health. 12 (3): 129-134.

Office, N.A. (2017). A short guide to the Ministry of Justice. M. o. Justice, NAO External Relations DP Ref.

Sherman, L.W., Strang, H., Barnes. G.. Woods. D.J., Bennett, S., Inkpen, N.. Newbury-Birch. D., Rossner, M.. Angel, C., Mearns. M. and Slothower, M. (2015). “Twelve experiments in restorative justice: the Jerry Lee program of randomized trials of restorative justice conferences.” Journal of Experimental Criminology. 11(4): 501-540.

Sondhi, A.. Birch, I, Lynch, K., Holloway, A. and Newbury-Birch, D. (2016.). “Exploration of delivering brief interventions in a prison setting: A qualitative study in one English region.” Drugs Education, Prevention and Policy. 23(5): 382 -387.

Ministry of Justice (2018). Offender Management Statistics Quarterly. London: National Statistics.

Verschuere, B., Brandsen, T. and Pestoff, V. (2012). “Co-production: The state of the art in research and the future agenda.” Voluntas: International Journal of Voluntary and Nonprofit Organizations 23(4): 1083-1101.

< Prev   CONTENTS   Source   Next >