Research access barriers as reputational risk management: a case study of censorship in corrections.

AuthorWatson, Tara Marie


Gaining access to correctional institutions is often time-consuming and unpredictable, and the pressures brought to bear can divert a study from its original plan; access is sometimes achieved via "some admixture of fortuitousness, a willingness to compromise, and capitalizing on pre-existing opportunities" (Goodman 2011: 600). Access has traditionally been treated as a methodological issue, a process that unfolds in a series of steps, as researchers establish rapport and obtain permission to recruit participants or examine agency-produced data (King and Liebling 2008; Noaks and Wincup 2004; Patenaude 2004; Trulson, Marquart, and Mullings 2004). A key rapport-building step involves approaching "gatekeepers," those who have the power to grant or refuse access to people or activities (Burgess 1984). Many criminal justice organizations, including the Correctional Service of Canada (CSC)--the federal prison agency that supervises offenders sentenced to two years or more--grant access through their own research branches, which review proposals from academic researchers (Hannah-Moffat 2011). Although identifying the methodological issues and offering practical solutions are important contributions to the criminological literature, "negotiating a way in" (Mopas and Turnbull 2011) and dealing with gatekeepers are more than administrative hurdles. Research access protocols are worthy of study, as they can reveal information about how institutions present themselves, insulate themselves from public scrutiny, and suppress information that is unfavourable to their own and/or government agendas.

Scholars have been troubled by barriers to accessing corrections due to the potential for such barriers to produce and reproduce certain knowledge(s). For example, if researchers must resort to collecting data from, say, a handful of jurisdictions or institutions that regularly permit access, over time the impacts (e.g., limited insights and difficulties with generalizing) may spread to penal scholarship more broadly (Spivakovsky 2011). Reiter (2014) recently described prison research in the United States as "pixelated," due to the fact that access to prisons is relatively limited and that very little qualitative prison research has been done in the twenty-first century; this pixelation has resulted in a hazy understanding of contemporary corrections. Hannah-Moffat (2011) has observed that obtaining approval from research review branches has become increasingly difficult for scholars who "challenge the assumptions underpinning hegemonic correctional approaches, or whose research may bring the system into disrepute" (446). Even when research applicants have already obtained ethics approval from their own departments or universities, correctional research branches often deny scholars access by citing various concerns with methodology and research questions and/or claiming that there are not enough resources to meet the needs of the proposed study (Hannah-Moffat 2011: 447; Martel 2004; Yeager 2008). My access experience followed this well-trodden pattern.

I attempted to access CSC employees for doctoral criminology research on in-prison substance abuse programming and policy, but access was denied. I have turned this experience into a case study where I treat correspondence with CSC as a source of data and apply a reputational risk management framework (Power 2004, 2007) to reinterpret my research proposal as a risk to be managed from the organization's point of view. A second source of data, interviews with former and current correctional system informants, supplements the analysis. Although an access-denied case study is not unique to the literature on doing prison research, including research proposed to CSC (Martel 2004; Yeager 2008), my use of reputational risk as a lens through which to view the issues expands the conceptual toolkit for researchers who endeavour to be more reflective about access barriers. This case study helps validate the relevance of a strand of reputational risk literature--that has been based on studies of corporate and financial organizations--to the study of correctional organizations. In addition, the insights I collected from varied stakeholders constitute a unique empirical referent that not only complements my close inspection of personal interactions with CSC but reveals important concerns about wide-reaching consequences that may stem from CSC's research access barriers.

It is hard to quantify CSC's relationship with external researchers without access to internal decision making about how different types of research are characterized, practised, facilitated, and denied. According to a report about the early development and function of CSC's Research Branch (Porporino 1989), research at CSC was understood as a process that "should not be rooted in any single discipline, nor oriented only towards a narrow set of easily researchable issues" (5). Openness was expressed regarding "all types" of scientific inquiry, including both quantitative and qualitative methods, capable of collecting data relevant to current and emerging correctional issues and practice. The same report recognized the value of "active collaboration" with academics and communication of research findings to the broader criminal justice research community (Porporino 1989). This initial vision can be contrasted with the CSC Commissioner's Directive (CD) 009 on research (revised in 2004) which, I suggest later in the present article, offers a narrower definition of research.

Other signs of shifts from the initial vision can be found. I have had involvement with researchers at a variety of Canadian universities who reported that collaboration is rarely sought by CSC and that, in recent years, only a limited group of researchers or agencies have had proposals approved. CSC's Web site provides numerous research reports on a range of topics, including substance abuse, but there appear to be changes over time in the types of research reported (e.g., an increased focus on offender profiles and characteristics). Online release of issues of FORUM on Corrections Research, CSC's research magazine--which began publication in 1989 and was to serve as a wide-reaching dissemination strategy for research findings--appears to have halted since 2007. Archived copies of CSC's annual research plans and priorities are not easy to locate. The 2010-11 Research Plan (CSC 2010: 5) (the year I embarked on my research) stated that the Branch received 31 project requests from external researchers in addition to the projects outlined in the plan but did not specify how many external requests were approved. My own count, in preparation for my research, found that of the 66 project descriptions contained in that plan, only 6 mention academic or university partners as collaborators. Most research collaborators listed were a variety of CSC or internal sectors, while other government departments and external agencies were also included, but less frequently. Recent annual reports on CSC plans and priorities contain hardly any mention of research (e.g., CSC 2008; CSC 2013).

These signs that access for external researchers is being closed off and, potentially, that organizational interest in certain types of correctional research is diminishing, appear to have parallels within the wider political context. At the time of writing, Canada has recently implemented tough-on-crime legislation, the Safe Streets and Communities Act, which makes amendments to a number of different Acts including, for instance, imposing tougher penalties for drug offences under the Controlled Drugs and Substances Act (Safe Streets and Communities Act, ss 39-46), and there are widespread public concerns about government transparency and information sharing. Problems of government information sharing are increasingly evident from media stories about researchers being effectively "silenced" across federal sectors (see, e.g., Klinkenborg 2013), especially when their research findings do not match the current political agenda. There is a pattern here that suggests reluctance to approve external research could be a by-product of a much larger government agenda of non-transparency and suppression of research findings. My analysis is, therefore, timely and contributes newer evidence that reinforces this troubling picture for contemporary researchers. Again, I use concepts that have not yet been applied in previously published case studies of access.

The next two sections prime the reader for the case study--an overview of the reputational risk management literature that I was drawn to and brief context about substance abuse as a CSC priority area.

Overview of reputational risk for organizations

There are countless potential "encounters with risk" (Hutter and Power 2005) that organizations may confront, ranging from brief moments that fail to gamer much attention to events that prompt major organizational change. A significant portion of the organizational risk management literature and of the theoretical contributions highlighted here, in particular those by Power (2004, 2007), emerged from examining operations, auditing procedures, and crisis management within large corporations and financial institutions. The relevance of this work in the context of criminal justice organizations is uncultivated scholarly territory. For Power (2004, 2007), our social world is not only preoccupied with risk, but all risk is becoming increasingly framed as manageable. He argues that an ambitious "risk management of everything" agenda is having far-reaching impacts on how organizations design their operations, including the proliferation of internal control systems. One of the defining features of risk management saturation is growing organizational preoccupation with managing external relationships. As Power (2007: 196) states, "More is now expected of organizations; risks must be managed and...

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