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Review 3 of "Straight from the Source: A Gendered Examination of the Inmate Code and Strategies to Avoid Sexual Victimization"

Published onSep 29, 2020
Review 3 of "Straight from the Source: A Gendered Examination of the Inmate Code and Strategies to Avoid Sexual Victimization"

Vote: Reject


This paper includes a review of research conducted in prisons, most of which is very old with little value in contemporary prison research.  The authors’ research relied on a mediocre research design that resulted in learning nothing new or interesting in the study of prison sexual violence, if it occurred in the prisons where they gathered data.  In fact, the authors didn’t study prison sexual violence but instead studied stories about sexual violence told by prisoners.       

A problem of interpretation and contextualizing past research occurs when authors of research decades-old and contemporary researchers as well, have had no first-hand experience inside prisons.  An initial problem came with the authors’ acceptance of the 60 year old notion of an inmate code, which has been repeated again and again.  Even if we assume an inmate code there’s no link between it and sexual exploitation of inmates on inmates.  If the authors search for the origin of the notion of an inmate code they have learned that the idea that inmates oppose prison authority came from survivors of German concentration camps. In contemporary prisons, inmates’ daily lives, even their meals, depend on the largess of prison staff, many of whom are inmates. 

Researchers entered prisons assuming they’d find inmates who had been sexual assault victims but didn’t find any. If they had interviewed sexual assault victims without immediately notifying IRB and warden, they and their university would find serious trouble.  And if they interviewed a sexual assault perpetrator they were bound to report that inmate to the warden, so ending their interviews.  Even if an inmate said he or she had been sexually assaulted, researchers had no means to verify those self-reports, thus sexual folklore advances. Yet, even if an inmate goaded researchers by claiming to have been raped or perpetrated a rape researchers were obligated to report those inmate to the warden.  Interviews would be terminated. Beyond those issues, researchers had no access to institution data that might suggest sexual violence occurs. 

The question that must always be asked and answered is:  How do you know behavior X reported by inmates actually occurs?  If incidents cannot be verified, then researchers dabble in prison lore, hearsay.  That’s important in this research, because researchers assumed rape did occurred and in doing so biased their research.  A question using the term rape or sexual violence adds bias. They wrote: "Denial [of sexual assault] among female inmates is problematic in that, if a female inmate doesn’t believe sexual victimization occurs, she may be victimized ...."  That evidence of researchers’ bias.  Whose voice is that:  authors’ or inmates?  Research among female inmates does not indicate that they deny the possibility of sexual violence.  To say rape doesn’t occur isn’t a denial of rape; it’s inmates’ first-hand experience. It’s data.  

The single issue which prevents publication is an absence of a strong research design and absence of survey data, except for and occasional X% said this or 5% that.  If there were survey data, we’d know only that n-inmates said X, others Y.  How do you interpret those percentages?  Among 2,000 inmates, if there were 20% sampled, how then do you infer behavior within the context of prison life? What types of data support inferences?  

A major error was the misuse the analytic method known as thematic analysis.  Thematic analysis has value in cultural analysis. It requires volumes of interviewees’ narrative data unbiased by researchers’ leading questions, such as does rape occur here?  Thematic analysis requires a semantic analysis of narratives.  There are numerous publications explaining thematic analysis dating back 50 years.  Cultural themes are a systematic, culturally influenced way people think and talk about X.  Ten or 50 or 100 interviews out of 2,000 inmates tells us virtually nothing about prison life or the way inmates think about living in prison. But with a proper sample, you get patterns in the way people think and feel.  Interviewing prisons has an added, complex interpretive challenge: all inmates grew up outside prison and were influenced by their culture. Themes of life in prison are easily biased by themes of life outside prison.  

Another major problem is sampling:  researchers didn’t report a structured method of sampling.  Permitting a warden to select inmates protects the warden from angry inmates whom he thinks will tell university research bad tales and publish it. If a warden knew inmate X had been sexually assaulted or perpetrated on he or she would not have to open for interviews. 

Another major problems is that researchers’ questions were biased.  Researchers should have prepared themselves before writing interview questions by reading the law of implicit bias.  Researchers must do more than report inmates’ quotes.  That’s not research; it’s journalism. 

Researchers could have asked inmates about their health, number of times they went to see prison health care providers, if they knew inmates who had an attorney who filed a lawsuit for violating constitutional standards of conditions of confinement.  If researchers want to know about sexual behavior, they shouldn’t ask inmates about sexual behavior.  If they do, they’ll hear prison gossip, which is great for if they want to study prison gossip. 

This research was at most a C grade in a research methods course but offers nothing valuable to prison research.  The value of social research comes via researchers’ experiences and modes of interpretation.  These researchers should have studied sexual violence on their university campus, an institution they know well. 

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