Top 10 Lessons Offered for Jail Research

Dr. Kate Fox

After surveying 2,414 inmates at 14 jails in Florida, Dr. Kate Fox has learned several important lessons about conducting research with incarcerated populations.

Dr. Fox, an assistant professor at Sam Houston State University’s College of Criminal Justice, recently shared her top 10 list with other academics in an article entitled "Getting In (and Staying in) When Everyone Else Wants to Get Out: Ten Lessons Learned from Conducting Research with Inmates." It was written in conjunction with Katheryn Zambrana and Jodi Lane and published in the November 2010 issue of the Journal of Criminal Justice Education.

"There were many challenging aspects of conducting research with inmates, and because there are so few published guides out there on the tips and advice from researchers, I had to use 'trial and error' to navigate the hurdles I encountered," said Dr. Fox. "My motivation and interest in writing this article was to help other scholars anticipate and overcome some barriers to conducting research with inmates."

The Journal article discusses the challenges of obtaining data from incarcerated samples and offers practical advice for researchers who are interested in collecting original data from inmates. Among the chief lessons offered are:

  • obtaining access to correctional agencies
  • keeping good records
  • maintaining positive relationships with correctional officers and inmates
  • understanding the rules of the correctional facility
  • dealing with low response rates
  • scheduling and rescheduling data collection procedures
  • anticipating unexpected situations
  • understanding the accuracy of inmate self-report data
  • maintaining relationships with correctional agencies after data collection

Dr. Fox said one of the most challenging aspects of the study was navigating red tape, which varied from facility to facility. Getting access, traveling from location to location, and collecting data took lots of time and patience.

When working in jails, Dr. Fox learned to expect the unexpected. During one visit, an inmate began violently convulsing; during another, an elderly female began weeping uncontrollable saying she had endured years of physical abuse by her husband; still another started with an inmate screaming loudly and being removed before the session. One researcher even ran into an old childhood friend who was incarcerated at the facility and wanted to participate in the project.

"Given the unpredictable nature of interacting with inmates, researchers collecting data within a correctional facility will inevitable face unique problems and issue," the article said. "Perhaps the most effective advice beyond recommending anticipation of unexpected events is to react to uncomfortable situations in the most professional and least dramatic way possible."

Despite the obstacle, Dr. Fox said the project has been invaluable. Since finishing the project in 2009, it has been used to publish three peer-reviewed papers, with two more under review and six others in progress.

"In the end, the quality and the uniqueness of the data that I now have has made the work and the time a very valuable and worthwhile experience," Dr. Fox said. "This project has really helped jump-start my career. And each time I share the survey with someone else, they think of a completely new and interesting angle for a paper that I hadn't thought of before, so I look forward to collaborating with others using these data for years to come."

With the data collected, Dr. Fox is generating articles on the differences between gang members and non-gang members and working on future papers on the theoretical effects of self-control, control-balance, and social disorganization.

To study the differences between gang and non-gang members, the survey included questions about the inmates’ crime, victimization, self-control, and perceptions of neighborhood disorganization. The research is attempting to answer such questions as whether gang members are victimized more often than non-gang members; whether self-control varies between gang members and non-gang member offenders; and if perceptions of social disorganization predict offending or crime victimization and if control balance theory explain the relationship between gang membership, crime, and victimization.

Dr. Fox also is studying the extent to which gang members are more or less afraid of crime compared to non-gang members. This paper examines several research questions, including: (1) Are adult offenders afraid of property, personal and/or gang-related crime? (2) Do crime perpetration and victimization among offenders affect their fear of crime? (3) Do perceptions of factors related to social disorganization (disorder, diversity and collective efficacy) affect offenders’ fear of crime? and (4) Does the impact of these factors vary by gang status?

Interestingly, although ex-gang and – especially – current gang members believed themselves to be more likely to be victims of property, personal, and gang crime, these groups reported being less fearful of these crimes compared to non-gang members.

Dr. Fox’s works have recently appeared or are forthcoming in Justice Quarterly, Crime & Delinquency, Journal of Interpersonal Violence, and the Journal of Criminal Justice. Over the past five years, she has taught courses on crime victimization and research methods and currently teaches “Victimology” as online and face-to-face courses.

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