Ethical issues and procedures
Informed consent, voluntary participation, anonymity and confidentiality were the key ethical considerations in the study.
Informed consent and voluntary participation
In order to ensure that full, informed and voluntary consent was given by each participant, each prisoner was told about the subject matter of the study and what would be expected of them in terms of participation prior to taking part in the study. Recognising that some prisoners may have issues with literacy, this was done orally. Each prisoner was also provided with an information leaflet prior to consenting to the interview so that they could consider their participation at length if desired. They were reassured that participation was voluntary and that no reward or incentive was being offered for participation, nor would they be at any detriment for declining the invitation to participate in the study. Finally, each prisoner was told that even if they consented to participate they were free to withdraw their consent at any time up to the submission of the research. Any questions or concerns that they may have about the research were answered as honestly and as frankly as possible. Once these formalities had been covered, each prisoner was asked to sign a consent form, containing all of the aforementioned information, to signify that they had given full and free consent to being involved in the research.
Anonymity and confidentiality
In order to ensure anonymity, the researcher formulated pseudonyms for each prisoner and screened the data for any facts or statements which may inadvertently identify the prisoner. The actual name and the pseudonyms were entered onto a password-protected spreadsheet and are therefore available only to the researcher. The use of gatekeepers and the fact that each prisoner who participated came to the interview room dilutes the guarantee of anonymity and confidentiality to a degree. However, the interviews were conducted in strict privacy, out of the earshot of teachers or prison officers.
Limitations of methodology
Despite the careful selection of these methods, there will always be some limitations. The first potential limitation is the issue of self-selection for prison education. The argument may be made that those who are participating in prison education are those prisoners who are already motivated towards change, perhaps having higher levels of self-awareness, agency and social capital even prior to coming to prison education. The inclusion of questions examining the motivations to participate in education goes some way towards answering this concern, as it explores whether the reasons for participating in education are actually with a view to change or achieving goals or whether they are more benign reasons such as escapism. Furthermore, the objective is to explore the connections between the accounts of prisoners and the desistance and social capital framework of literature — the study is not designed to prove causal links between the two. This renders the dangers of self-selection less significant than if this were a purely quantitative study.
This leads to the second potential limitation of the study, that of the exploratory rather than causal nature of the research. The study is not looking to establish causal links between these phenomena, and it is not an interventionbased study. The social capital levels of prisoners when they arrived in prison is unknown. It is also impossible to know what decisions a prisoner had made as they entered prison in terms of change in their own life. This in turn makes showing causality difficult but does not hinder the exploration of the links that exist. Finally, the methods discussed earlier do not encompass a follow-up study. While this is not a methodological impossibility, rather it is a research design decision, it does not allow for those who have participated in education to give a reflective, post-release account of how prison education may have helped them. However, the inclusion of the accounts of five ex-prisoners at various stages of desistance allows an element of retrospection on any supporting role education may have in reintegration and desistance.
There is some argument across criminological disciplines regarding the terminology that ought to be used in describing incarcerated persons. While within probation and penal discourse the use of the terms offender and prisoner are common, there are those who feel these are deeply loaded and disrespectful labels. Within this text, in line with my own philosophy, the phrases person, man or woman are used where appropriate. Moreover, those who were participating in prison education are referred to as “participants” and those who were not participating are referred to as “non-participants”. However, at times, the words prisoner, ex-prisoner, offender and ex-offender are used where using other words is difficult. There is an effort to keep this to a minimum and, where used, these phrases are not meant in any derogatory sense and are merely descriptive.
Having explained and justified the various decisions and procedures undertaken in the study, a clear picture has been developed of how the research was carried out, the setting within which the research was based, the challenges and obstacles that were faced and the manner in which the data was collected and analysed. The task now is to present these empirical findings throughout the upcoming chapters, in addition to outlining the previous theory and undertaking a detailed discussion of the implications of the findings in this study. The remaining chapters will carry out these tasks, beginning in the following chapter with a detailed look at the prison education literature, before considering the findings in the remaining chapters.
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