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Ethics in prison studies

These different methodological approaches, which provide very different insights, still all carry the burden of ethical judgment: this might be the responsibility of speaking back to the kind of abuse enacted by prisons and their imprints, or to how prisons are rendering certain lives productive or superfluous, or to the structural role they play in society at large. These judgments are necessarily partial choices: a narrative humanitarian approach might bring suffering into full view but might miss out on how it is being reproduced; interviews with prison officials might reveal that they have no other choice than to stay in a system they see as inhumane, even though it might fail those whose lives are being discounted through triage and self-preservation; a critical focus on how state and economies rely on prisons to sustain their power and influence might miss out on the kind of popular support prisons hold, etc. Here, major epistemological questions link with ethically political questions that are equally important to pry open and consider.

Often, however, we have to admit, our methodological and epistemological choices are not even a question of careful consideration but of what is possible at all given the requirements of the institutions we interact with (Liebling 1999, Rhodes 2013, Gomes and Duarte 2018). To begin with, there are our very own research institutions to which we are bound, mainly universities, in different parts of the world. During the project it became strikingly clear how much variation exists among our institutions’ ethical standards that are expected to be applied when engaging with prisons. Some institutions could not care less about ethics in the conventional way, especially when a research site was in a far-away country from which little backlash was expected. It seemed that an understanding of pure and fundamental research prevails in which the advancement of knowledge carries absolute value. And many members of these institutions see it as their personal responsibility, as researchers, to deal with their interlocutors, or research subjects, in a responsible and consensual way. There was no evidence that people abused the discretion provided by these institutions, but it was applied in a flexible way that allowed for a cognisance of difficult circumstances and variation in what consensus means.

Other institutions, mainly in the anglophone world, have adopted such strict ethical protocols that research efforts are stifled; further, such protocols make it difficult to follow the ethical call to witness what goes on in prisons. Here, it becomes clear, it is not research that stands central but the universities’ liability; such protocols seem designed to safeguard institutions from being sued. Ethical protocols whose blueprints are derived from the medical sciences (Dilger, Huschke, and Mattes 2015) and which take medical trials as the model for doing research have defined so narrowly how risk, agency, and consensus are constituted for both researchers and their interlocutors that any research conducted outside of a middle-class environment is automatically disallowed or at least marked as high risk. As a consequence, researchers are burdened with unbelievable bureaucratic requirements, safeguards, and levels of proof to mitigate the risk. Interestingly, there has been a backlash against such tight protocols, especially from the social sciences, which claim that such cumbersome processes and hurdles stand in the way of engaging in the most urgent issues, which necessarily take place in situations of risk and reduced agency. These make clear that legal-ethical standards in fact can obstruct researchers from fulfilling ethical responsibilities and the political-ethical advocacy roles called for in some research projects.

The formalism of such ethics procedures also created telling paradoxes for us. While some protocols, for example, required formal permission by prison authorities or the government department overseeing prison governance, to acquire such permission would require the researcher to apply rather unorthodox means. In fact, to even get to speak and be heard by the relevant officials, one already needed to know very well the mores guiding the affairs of certain government departments. This, for example, could involve paying respect with the offering of a bottle of wine or some other precious goodies. Within a strict legalistic liberal outlook, such ‘basic courtesy’ would however immediately be seen as corruption. In fact, so we found, the often highly protracted processes of gaining access and maintaining access to the prison, and getting access to certain people within the prison, while it could be highly frustrating, ultimately involved learning (or if already known: applying and enacting) a huge number of informal codes. One might say that pursuing such access laid open a certain value system with its own code of conduct and ethical protocols. Ignoring these and simply sticking to the formal route would not only lead to many dead ends but also preclude a very fruitful research opportunity, based on a method of immersion. Indeed, most of us were confronted with at times incommensurable ethical contradictions from both sides - the ‘corrupt’ institutions and the self-preserving hyper- cautious research institutions - that stifled more sincere ethical consideration by researchers and the people they were studying about what the responsibility of prison studies should be. It became clear that prison studies, perhaps more than any other discipline, bring into sharp relief what Fassin (2008a, b) describes as competing ethical codes (Le Marcis and Morelle forthcoming).

Thus, often, compelled by one or another ethical or institutional requirement, we were driven towards studying the prison from outside. As mentioned above, it turned out there were many good reasons to do so. We also found grey zones betwixt and between, for example, studying letters written by inmates that had been smuggled out of prison, or SMS and WhatsApp messages sent by inmates from phones that were in principle forbidden for prisoners to possess but were commonly tolerated and widely available. This necessary adaptation of methods, in response to the constraints of institutional protocols, makes this book incredibly diverse in its approaches and foci, which in turn has helped the endeavour illuminate the following four thematic lines.

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