What Do Incarcerated Women Think About Research?

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In the United States women are entering prisons at a rate double that of their male counterparts. Women in prison often have different needs than men in prison and have been found to have higher rates of mental health issue and high rates of childhood victimization, previous physical or sexual abuse, and intimate partner violence.

Until recently, interventions for women in prison were based on men’s needs. The recognition of different victimization experiences and related mental health problems for women in prison has led to gender specific interventions. However, it is necessary to conduct more research with women in prison to learn about their needs.

Due to the unfortunate long history of unethical research in prisons, regulations about research in prisons should be and are in place to protect people. However, strict regulations may inadvertently prevent research with incarcerated populations, which ultimately prevents understanding criminogenic risks and needs.

Knowledge about the research within prisons is from researchers’ perspectives; perspectives of incarcerated people is largely absent. The exception is a study which examined incarcerated men’s perceptions of the benefits and risks of participating in research study on parole revocation. No participants reported experiencing negative outcomes or experienced negative emotions after the initial study. Many shared feeling better after the study. None felt pressure from correctional staff to be in the study. This suggests that the men perceived more benefits than risks and did not feel coerced to participate in the study.

No known research specifically has examined incarcerated women’s views of participating in research nor focused on incarcerated individuals who participate in research on sensitive topics. My recent work with colleagues, seeks to address this. This study examines incarcerated women’s experiences about participating in a research study about history of victimization, mental health problems, and substance abuse.

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At the conclusion of the survey about victimization, the women were asked about their experiences with participating in the research study. The focus of the current study, the qualitative component exploring the women’s experiences and perceptions of participating in the research study about victimization, had five open ended questions asking women participants about what their experience with the study was like, the feelings they had while answering questions, feelings at the end of the study, what was helpful and unhelpful, and their willingness to participate in future research. Interviewers documented women’s responses and noted when they recorded direct quotes. The research team conducted a thematic analysis of these responses.

Women reported feeling overwhelmingly positive about their experience with participating in the research study. Specifically, they described benefits of participating and explained that participating in the study provide them opportunities for sharing their story, healing, reflecting, growing, and helping others. Some women disclosed that during the study they had some negative feelings when discussing their past, including incidents of victimization. However, even those who described having negative feelings at times remained overall positive about being in the study and emphasized its benefits. There were occasions where women provided neutral or vague answers to questions about their insights about the study, yet in these instances the women typically expressed overall positive experiences about the study. Regardless of any mention of experiencing negative feelings or responding in vague or neutral response to questions about their participation in the study, women consistently were positive about being part of the study. Overwhelmingly, women stated they would willingly participate in a future similar survey.

The women’s responses can be understood as their endorsement of the importance of having women prisoners participate in research while acknowledging that some topics are emotionally laden. The findings support further research in prison settings despite the vulnerability of the participants.

With the high incarceration rates in the United States and rising incarceration rates of women, more research is needed in the area of incarceration. There is a need to better understand issues surrounding incarceration which will require research with all incarcerated people. Not taking incarcerated individuals’ experiences in research into consideration further disenfranchises them. While it is necessary to protect people’s rights, there still must be opportunities to engage incarcerated men and women in meaningful research.

This study can help advocate for conducting research with women in prison as well as help alleviate concerns about incarcerated women participating in research studies. The current study, in combination with previous findings, addresses how participating in research is beneficial for men and women in prison.

Schelbe, L., Hardwick, A., Wilfong, A., Hanifin, C., Tripodi, S. J., & Pettus-Davis, C. (2018). Incarcerated women’s experiences and perceptions of participating in research. International Journal of Offender Therapy and Comparative Criminology, 62(12), 3,797–3,814. doi:10.1177/0306624X17747173