[Heith Copes, Andy Hochstetler, and Anastasia Brown. “Inmates’ Perceptions of the Benefits and Harm of Prison Interviews.” Field Methods (November 21, 2012). doi: 10.1177/1525822X12465798. h/t Dan T. A. Eisenberg]
Back in May, I mentioned the impressive work by Michael McDonald, Susan Cox, and Anne Townsend, who conduct follow-up interviews with research participants in the hope of assembling empirical evidence about the impact of research as a basis for future research decisions. In this article, Copes, Hochstetler, and Brown adopt this approach. A few days after forty Alabama prisoners participated in interviews about their perceptions of parole revocation, Copes interviewed them about their experience of being interviewed.
The prisoners' responses suggest that IRBs and researchers do need to respect respondents' desire for confidentiality. As one prisoner put it, "I might want to tell you something, but I might not want to tell someone else, because I know you ain’t gonna say nothing of what I got to say."
But the researchers found no evidence to support IRBs' common worries that prisoners might expect their participation to lead to leniency, that they would be confused about the difference between researchers and correctional officials, and that talking itself would cause emotional trauma. As the researchers put it,
Another potential source of harm that can come from consenting to an interview is emotional discomfort emerging from reliving painful experiences. It is possible that asking the imprisoned to discuss painful events and times may trigger anxiety, self-doubt, and/or depression. To assess this, we asked all participants if they experienced negative emotions after the interview. None said they did. As shown in the previous section, participants said that they felt better after the interview.
All told, the prisoners reported that participating in research had been empowering. IRBs that are thinking about blocking prisoners' access to researchers may want to remember one's statement:
I kinda had a better feeling just going back to the dorm. Just to know that somebody cared enough to come check things out. You kinda lost down here. Free world people don’t come see you. These people in here ain’t gonna give you no information on nothing except we got you.