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Comparative Penology

Institute of Criminology

Saying no

In a much-cited article, Mary Bosworth (2005), together with four of her research participants, asked why prisoners volunteer to be interviewed by researchers. They argue that wanting to help the researcher, being heard, making good, and correcting wrongs are some of the important aspects that motivate prisoners to take part in prison research. These motivations resonate very well with our own experience from interviewing prisoners in England & Wales and Norway.

The opposite question, however, of why prisoners don’t want to talk to researchers, is less explored. One obvious reason for the lack of knowledge into why prisoners prefer not to speak to researchers is that the researchers never get the chance to talk to them about it. Normally, researchers have certain criteria when sampling interviewees, and contact persons in the prisons (officers or other staff members) typically give out information sheets and ask prisoners on the researcher’s behalf. When they say no, we as researchers have no way of finding out why. In our project, we most often get the chance to ask prisoners to take part in our study directly, and we may then probe into their reasons for saying no. However, asking them to state their reasons for turning us down is and should not be a straightforward thing. Prisoners may have personal reasons for refusing, and it would be wrong to demand of them to state these when they already have said no to be interviewed. Also, in the consent form we provide to all interviewees, we stress that participation is voluntary, and that they can withdraw their consent at any time without having to state their reason for doing so. We also stress, in the beginning of each interview, that if they find some of our questions problematic or demanding, they don’t have to answer them and they should not feel pressured to explain why. There is, then, good reason for not probing into why prisoners say no to be interviewed by researchers in the first place.

However, peoples’ motives and rationale for not wanting to be interviewed are interesting, and might tell us something of importance about life in the prisons and wings where we are doing research. Also, because we are doing qualitative interviews in so many different (types of) establishments, in two different countries, variations in the extent to which people volunteer to be interviewed or not, and their reasons either way, may also improve our understanding of how institutional context affects prisoners’ experiences.

We started to reflect on these issues because we are now doing research in a prison where we are finding it very hard to recruit participants. Halden prison, a high security establishment in the Eastern region of Norway, holds approximately 250 prisoners in what is generally believed to be one of the most progressive and modern high security prison in the world (Time Magazine described it in 2010 as ‘the world’s most humane prison’). We included Halden in our Entry/Exit sub-study not so much because of its ‘exceptional’ qualities, but mainly because the prison holds men on longer sentences. Our aim in Halden prison is therefore to interview long-termers coming towards the end of their sentences, and to re-interview them two or three months after their release from the prison. This is proving very hard to achieve.

Ahead of our previous fieldwork days in Halden, we developed a list of 12 potential interviewees based on release and sentence information from our contact person in the prison. Out of these 12, seven declined to take part in the study. Out of the five who volunteered, one of them turned out to be a prisoner we had already interviewed, and another didn’t show up to our appointment. When we went to see him at the carpentry workshop where he was working, a massive hall filled with woodwork and impressive amounts of machinery, he simply shook his head, said no, and went straight back to his work. He clearly preferred his work over talking to us. Thus, out of the 12 possible candidates, we were left with three interviewees. This is a much worse rejection rate than in any of the other Norwegian or English prisons we’ve been to so far. What can possibly explain the exceptional high rejection rate in Halden prison?

Two issues seem to be of relevance. The first involves the status Halden has achieved since it was first opened by the king of Norway in 2010. Because of Halden’s unique material conditions – beautiful architecture, extremely well-equipped workshops and education facilities, music studio, a visits house where prisoners can receive over-night visits from partner and children, for example – the prison receives a huge number of requests from researchers, journalists, interest groups, practitioners, and politicians eager to know how the prison looks, how it is run, and how prisoners experience doing time there. Thus, Halden is an intensively researched prison, and we suspect that the high rate of rejections may partly be because prisoners are ‘research-fatigued’. The second involves the quality of the workshops and education facilities. In Halden, prisoners leave their wings in the morning and walk down a small road to the long-stretched building housing the workshops, classrooms, kitchen, art studios, restaurant, store and library. They work a full day (they have their lunch break in one of the three living rooms in the building), and return to the wings in the afternoon just before dinner. Most of the people we speak to find the work and educational facilities very good. Like the prisoner who initially volunteered, but who declined to take part when we went to see him at his workshop, we suspect that the meaningful work and educational opportunities make it hard for us to recruit prisoners for day-time interviews.

Without first-hand accounts from the prisoners who say no, it is hard to know for sure what makes the rejection rate so high in Halden prison. But if we are right in assuming that research-fatigue and meaningful day-time activities are significant, that does tell us something of importance about the prison, and has implications for how we sample prisons and prisoners. Next time we are doing fieldwork in Halden we will try to spend more time in the prison in the evenings. And next time we choose which prison to go to, we will perhaps opt for a prison where people are slightly less accustomed to the presence of researchers. 

Dr Kristian Mjåland is a Senior Research Associate in the COMPEN team, Institute of Criminology, University of Cambridge.


Adams, W. L. (2010): “Norway Builds the World’s Most Humane Prison”. Time Magazine, 10.05.2010.,9171,1986002,00.html.

Bosworth, M., D. Campbell, B. Demby, S.M. Ferranti and M. Santos. (2005): "Doing Prison Research: Views From Inside". Qualitative Inquiry, 11 (2): 249-264.






logo The Comparative Penology Group is led by Dr Ben Crewe and his research team who, since 2016, have been working on a five-year project titled: 'Penal policymaking and the prisoner experience: a comparative analysis'.

The research is based in England & Wales, and Norway, and involves four inter-related studies of (a) penal policymaking and the penal field (b) the experience of entry into and release from custody (c) the daily experiences of female prisoners and imprisoned sex offenders, and (d) prisoners in the most secure parts of each jurisdiction's prison system.

This project is funded by the European Research Council (ERC).









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