Thursday, 15 September 2016

Dealing with emotions and breakaway training: reflections on collecting survey data in a prison

Guest post by Jennifer Ferguson, Research Associate (Alcohol Team), Teesside University

“Wear tracksuit bottoms, bring your trainers and be prepared for Judo style moves” – not something you hear every day when trying to set up data collection. Working in a prison has been an eye opener, in ways I expected, and in ways I could never have anticipated. I sit on F wing, the wing that prisoners are brought on to when they arrive. It is in the middle of this wing that I carry out surveys about brief alcohol interventions with each new prisoner for a research project at Teesside University.

When I think back to the phone call I received about “breakaway training” and how I felt on that day, (being told how to physically hurt people should I be attacked, and kicking grown men) it was all very useful and I believe necessary when working on a prison wing. However, what I should have been preparing for was how mentally challenging it is. Prison staff become hardened (through lack of choice) to what happens in there, they have to become emotionally disentangled from each prisoner, and some literally make fun of the inmates. Of course we need to know how to hide our keys, get out of basic holds, locate the alarms and know basic breakaway techniques. But the awful feeling I felt in the pit of my stomach for a vulnerable new prisoner who enquired as to where everyone was going with their towels (they were lining up for the showers), and who was told by another inmate: “swimming mate, you wanna go? Just go up there and ask ‘Mr Jones’”, will stay with me for a long time.

Prisoners don’t expect you to be nice to them, and no one uses first names. It is surnames for prisoners and Sir and Miss for staff. They don’t touch you, even to shake your hand. The language is horrific. This is just the way it is. So in my first few weeks - hearing ‘Thompson’ tell me about how he misses his wife and kids, ‘Scott’s’ emotional breakdown because he is terrified of being inside, and ‘Smith’s’ heartbreak about his childhood and battle with drink and drugs - I soon realised I didn’t need to know how to defend myself against anyone. What I needed to learn, and fast, was how to switch off emotionally in front of these grown men. I am an emotional person and could easily fill up with tears in an instant at some stories. In my time as a researcher, when writing papers, collecting data in various formats and spending hours inputting it into a statistics software package, I have never had to deal with grown men crying. That being said, I am told every day by the peer prisoners not to believe everything I am told. I will learn how to deal with my emotions and what prisoners tell me… and by then be finished data collection. I wonder if my perspective will change the more time I spend in there? 

I guess my point is that I am learning that you cannot understand everything in public health research from articles and text books. A class room cannot prepare for you for the mental challenge of working in prison setting. However, this difficult piece of data collection will be vital to our study and my development as a researcher.

Photo attribution: “Jailed.” by disastrous via, copyright © 2008:

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