Working With Offenders

You may want to work with an offender group as part of your evaluation. When it comes to ethical considerations this is more of an issue for those who are currently in prison or those still on probation, rather than those who have been involved in minor offences.

If you are conducting an evaluation study where your participants are offenders there are some issues which you need to give special consideration. These are:

  • Access
  • Confidentiality
  • Personal Safety
  • Issues When Collecting Data


Access to offenders for evaluation purposes will normally mean negotiation with external authorities such as the Home Office, the National Health Service (NHS), the National Offender Management Service (NOMS), and the Youth Offending Service.

For participants who are receiving services from the NHS, substance misuse courses for instance, the evaluation might first need approval from an NHS Research Ethics Committee.

Access to closed institutions such as prisons and secure training centres may not be allowed and if access is granted, it can take many months to arrange. Access may also be withdrawn at any point depending on local and political conditions.

If official access from the governing agency has been given, the co-operation of individual staff members is also needed. Access should always be seen as an ongoing active process and the support of gatekeepers at all levels is invaluable. Both staff members and the offenders themselves must always be thanked and treated honestly. Some form of small compensation could be considered.

Taking part in research incurs costs of time and inconvenience for participants, and a rule of research is to always leave the site on good terms, so that participants and agencies are not put off from taking part in studies again. Even if you do not need to go back yourself, another researcher may want access in the future.


The trust and co-operation of the offender participants themselves is also necessary in order to obtain any detailed data. If asking about criminal activities and lifestyles, participants will want some assurance that what they reveal will remain confidential. Whilst this seems obvious, it is not a straightforward matter and you will need to decide in advance what the limits of confidentiality are. It is helpful to draw up a plan for how you will react in certain situations where a breach of confidentiality may be necessary.

These 'limits' can then be explained to participants at the start of the study so that you can be honest with them about what information may or may not be passed on. It is standard to say that if you believe a participant's life, or another person's, is at serious risk of death or injury, then you will pass that knowledge on to someone else – this could be your Head of Department in the first instance who may, pass the information onto another agency. In the case of a prison or other secure institution, any information that may constitute a security threat will also need to be reported to your lead contact in the institution. This contact should be able to advise you of their reporting procedures and if you need to do anything further.

Personal Safety:

Although highly unlikely, it is possible that a researcher may face threats or intimidation, especially if a participant or someone spoken about has been recently arrested for an offence.

If interviewing an offender within the building of an official agency, ask a member of staff to stand outside the room and leave the door open. The member of staff will be far enough away to give some privacy but close enough to step in if needed. They will also be able to act as a witness in case of any allegations of improper behaviour on your part.

If meeting on neutral territory refer to your organisation's policies on lone working, and if possible take a colleague with you. Having a colleague with you will also help you to check your recording of the data to clarify unclear notes or recollections of what was described.

Issues When Collecting Data:

Depending upon the setting there will be practical limitations in methods chosen for data collection. Recording equipment and laptops are rarely allowed inside prisons so you will need to rely on hand-written notes. Timings need to be flexible as appointments may be changed or missed.

Qualitative data will provide you with greater explanation and detail of the participants' views, experiences and behaviours. A highly structured questionnaire risks missing relevant information that you may not have previously thought to ask about.

Interviewing and inter-personal skill is often needed to help the participants feel relaxed enough to respond beyond 'Yes' or 'No' answers. The physical environment can also play a part in helping them to feel relaxed. If possible try and situate the interview away from small rooms in agency buildings, or other settings, that might remind the participant of being interviewed by police officers or support workers.

Results from self-report surveys on offending behaviour should always be treated with caution as participants may deliberately under or over report. Results are less likely to suffer from response bias (wanting to give a response that is thought to please the researcher, or to be the most socially acceptable answer) if you are not present whilst the survey is completed. Ensuring anonymity should also increase the accuracy of responses. Using multiple methods, for example analysing documentary sources of information and interview data, as well as self-report, will help to corroborate and so validate your findings.

It can be difficult to identify offenders to take part in a study. Snowball sampling can help to identify further participants to interview. This is where you ask an offender you have already established contact with to see if they can put you in contact with others.