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Research Report: Taking justice into custody: the legal needs of prisoners
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Taking justice into custody: the legal needs of prisoners  ( 2008 )  Cite this report



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Chapter 3. Method


As may be seen by the preceding section, to date, there has been no comprehensive research regarding the legal needs of prisoners in NSW. The aims of the project, as stated in the introduction, are to examine the ability of prisoners in NSW to obtain legal information, advice and representation, and to participate effectively in the legal system. Qualitative interviews were used to explore the experiences of prisoners and people recently released from prison. The perspectives of DCS staff and other legal and non-legal service providers who support both prisoners and ex-prisoners were also sought through one-on-one interviews and a small number of focus groups. The following chapter describes the procedures utilised in the collection and analysis of the data which form the basis of this report.

Data collection

Prior to the main data collection phase, four key informants were consulted in order to gauge the scope and direction of the project. The informants were a senior solicitor with the PLS, the Chief Executive Officer of a non-government organisation that supports prisoners and their families, a university academic who has conducted research with ex-prisoners, and a staff member at the head office of DCS. These people provided invaluable guidance as to appropriate selection characteristics for both stakeholders and inmate interviewees, the breadth of areas to cover in terms of legal problems, and the issues to consider in conducting research in a prison environment.

There were two main populations drawn upon for the empirical data component of our research: an inmate (including ex-inmates) population and a stakeholder population (DCS staff and non-DCS workers). As it was necessary to conduct the interviews with prisoners and the majority of interviews with DCS staff on site at the prisons or probation and parole offices, an application was made to the Commissioner of the DCS (and, inclusive of this, to the DCS Ethics Committee) in August 2005 for permission to conduct the research. The project was approved on 18 November 2005 allowing access to 40 prison inmates, 10 parolees on parole and 10 DCS staff. These numbers were subsequently extended with approval to 46 inmates and 20 DCS staff.

The interviews were conducted by six experienced researchers (four permanent staff of the Foundation and two casual employees recruited specifically for the project). Given the unique circumstances of the target population, all interviewers attended a day training course that covered a refresher on qualitative interview techniques as well as specific issues relating to interviewing an inmate population. The training was conducted by a researcher with considerable experience in collecting data from people in custodial settings. This preparation was invaluable in terms of setting realistic expectations for recruitment, pre-empting problems in gaining access to prisoners, and increasing awareness of the potential risks to the safety and peace of mind for the researcher and inmate alike.

The following sections describe in detail the procedures used to collect data from each of the prisoner and stakeholder populations, followed by a description of the techniques employed to analyse the combined dataset.

Prisoners and ex-prisoners

Population and sampling

The prisoner sample for this project consisted of people who were, at the time of data collection, in full-time custody, or had been released from full-time custody in the last two years. The latter group consisted of both parolees and people who had been released unconditionally in order to capture any differences in the legal need experienced by people in contact with a parole officer compared with those without such contact.

Current inmates were drawn from five NSW prisons. Prison selection was aimed at yielding a range of interviewees in terms of geographic location, degree of security (at a facility level) and gender of inmates. In consultation with DCS, the following correctional centres were selected:

  • a maximum security urban facility for men, which is a major remand/reception prison
  • a maximum security urban facility for women, which is a major reception and remand centre that also holds sentenced inmates
  • a minimum-medium rural facility for men,18 with remanded and sentenced inmates
  • an urban transit facility for men that also includes inmates from non-urban areas attending court, male inmates, urban remand and sentenced male inmates
  • an urban minimum security for men, with sentenced inmates, and a works release centre.

For the ex-prisoner sample, parolee interviewees were drawn from three probation and parole services. One was located in southern Sydney, one in south-western Sydney and the other in rural NSW.

Determining a recruitment pathway for ex-prisoners not on parole was less straightforward compared with the two subgroups described above given the lack of formal links between these ex-prisoners and any particular service, such as probation and parole. The approach taken was to request the assistance of a number of services used by ex-prisoners, mainly from the Foundation's existing agency networks. Four non-legal support agencies (housing and welfare support serving, amongst others, ex-prisoners) agreed to assist the Foundation project team in recruiting interviewees. Two of these agencies were located in an area close to a rural prison; the remaining two were located in the suburbs of Sydney.

Description of the inmate sample

In order to ensure coverage of a variety of experiences, interviewees from a range of backgrounds and custody status were sought. Appendix 2 details the sampling frame used to guide the selection of people for interview. Table 3.1 displays the demographic characteristics of the final sample. Forty-six prisoners and 21 ex-prisoners were interviewed for this study. The majority of interviewees were over the age of 25. Twenty-eight interviewees were aged between 25–34 and 36 interviewees were over the age of 35. Only 10 per cent interviewees were under the age of 25.19

Reflecting the representation of women in prison across the NSW prisoner population, only eight women were interviewed and the remainder of the sample were men. In terms of cultural background, the majority (55%) of interviewees were from an Anglo-Saxon background. Recognising both the over-representation of Aboriginal people in NSW prisons, together with the unique experiences and particular needs of Indigenous Australians, care was taken to ensure that Aboriginal people were appropriately represented. Twenty-seven per cent of the final sample identified themselves as Aboriginal people. Ten prisoners and two ex-prisoners were from a Non-English Speaking Background (NESB) (18% of sample) including Lebanese, South American, Pacific Islander, Burmese, Greek and German interviewees.

Consistent with the description of this population earlier in this report, the majority of inmates reported limited educational experience with 22 per cent not finishing year 10, and seven per cent not finishing primary school. Thirty-eight per cent left school between years 10–12 and none had completed university. Finally, over two-thirds (45) of those sampled had children.



Table 3.1: Demographic characteristics of inmate sample
Prisoners
n = 46
Ex-Prisoners
n = 21
Total
n = 67
% (n)
Age
Under 25
5
2
10% (7)
25–34
21
7
41% (28)
Over 35
18
12
45% (30)
Unknown
2
0
3% (2)
Gender
Female
6
2
12% (8)
Male
40
19
88% (59)
Background
Anglo-Saxon
22
15
55% (37)
Aboriginal
14
4
27% (18)
NESB
10
2
18% (12)
Education
Less than primary
4
1
7% (5)
Less than Year 10
8
7
22% (15)
Yr 10–Yr 12
18
8
39% (26)
Some tertiary (TAFE or university)
11
4
22% (15)
Completed TAFE
3
1
6% (4)
Unknown
2
0
3% (2)
Children
Yes
31
14
67% (45)
No
15
7
33% (22)
Note: Some percentages do not add to 100 due to rounding. Percentages calculated as a proportion of the total sample (n = 67), including those for whom data was missing.

Table 3.2 displays the characteristics of the inmate sample across a number of characteristics associated with their imprisonment. Sixty-nine per cent (34) of the prisoners interviewed were incarcerated at the time in urban jails and the remaining 31 per cent (12) were located at a rural/regional prison. Among the ex-prisoner interviewees, twelve resided in the city and nine were from a regional/rural area.



Table 3.2: Prison-associated characteristics of inmate sample
Prisoners
n = 46
Ex-Prisoners
n = 21
Total
n = 67
Area
City
34
12
69% (46)
Regional/rural
12
9
31% (21)
Status
Remandee
19
n/a
28% (19)
Sentenced
27
n/a
40% (27)
Parolee
n/a
15
22% (15)
Non-parole release
n/a
6
9% (6)
History
First time in prison
21
6
40% (27)
Been previously incarcerated
23
13
54% (36)
Unknown
2
2
6% (4)
Classification1
n = 46
Maximum
9
n/a
20% (9)
Medium
10
n/a
22% (10)
Minimum
18
n/a
40% (18)
Protection
6
n/a
13% (6)
Unknown
3
n/a
7% (3)
Stage1
New inmate (<3 months)2
7
n/a
15% (7)
Established inmate (> 3 months)
35
n/a
76% (35)
Pre-release (<6 months to go)
4
n/a
9% (4)
Sentence3
n = 27
n = 23
n = 50
<6 months
1
4
10%(5)
6 month–5 years
11
16
54% (27)
>5 years
15
3
36% (18)
Notes:
1 The classification was calculated as a percentage of only those currently held in prison (n = 46).
2 All new inmates were on remand.
3 The sentence was calculated as a percentage of sentenced and released inmates only (remandees excluded) (n = 50).

In terms of imprisonment status, the sample included 27 sentenced inmates, 19 inmates on remand, 15 ex-prisoners on parole and six inmates released unconditionally. Among the current prisoners (n = 46), nearly 40 per cent (18) were held in minimum security, while 22 per cent (10) were in medium security and 20 per cent (9) were held in maximum security.20 A further six interviewees were in protective custody. No prisoners currently in segregation were interviewed.

Of all interviewees, 40 per cent reported that this had been their first time in prison (21 prisoners and six ex-prisoners) however over 50 per cent reported that they had been incarcerated before (23 prisoners and 13 ex-prisoners).

Seven inmates, all remandees, had been in prison for less than three months, and were unaware of how long they would be incarcerated for. More than three-quarters of the inmate interviewees (39) had been in prison for longer than 3 months. Four of these established inmates had six months of their sentence remaining to be served.

We have included information about the length of sentence for both those currently serving and those recently released. The length of sentence for those recently released was the sentence associated with their most recent incarceration. Fifty-four per cent (11) of interviewees who were serving, or had served a sentence, were serving (or had served) prison terms of between six months and five years. A further 36 per cent (18) had sentences of over five years. Only five of our interviewees were serving or had served sentences of less than six months. Therefore, short term inmates (jailed for less than six months) are considerably under-represented in our sample. In recognition, we have drawn upon the stakeholder interviews and other literature to consider the particular issues facing this group of inmates.

Procedure

Recruitment

Recruitment of interviewees who were current inmates was facilitated through a liaison person located at each of the correctional centres. Once DCS had approved the research, the liaison person at each facility was identified after we wrote to the general managers and asked them to nominate a staff member to act in this capacity. In general, the liaison person was a welfare officer, education program manager, or security manager. The senior researchers on the project visited each centre in Sydney to ascertain appropriate interview spaces, and to familiarise themselves with prison entry and security procedures. Liaison persons were sent a suggested profile of the prisoners along the lines of the characteristics listed in Appendix 2, and other requirements were given where appropriate. The only exclusion stipulated was that potential interviewees should not pose a threat to the researchers, although inmates charged or convicted of a violent crime were not automatically excluded. There were no other restrictions in terms of competence to participate other than that the interviewee could participate in an interview conducted in English to a degree where they felt comfortable doing so. After discussion with DCS research staff, it was decided that interviewees currently in prison would not be offered an incentive to participate for a number of logistical and ethical reasons. The researchers attended the prisons at a pre-arranged date and time and interviewed inmates typically in legal or general 'visits rooms'. Although interviews were conducted within the sight of prison officers (either directly or via security camera), they were kept confidential by being conducted beyond the hearing of prison staff.

Recruitment of ex-prisoners on parole was facilitated through managers or unit leaders located at the three probation and parole services described above (see 'Population and sampling'). As with the sample of current inmates, liaison persons were sent a profile of the desired interviewee sample outlining the desired demographic characteristics (e.g. sex, ethnicity and length of time served) to guide interviewee selection. The liaison persons were also provided with information to pass onto potential interviewees. An incentive of $30 was offered in order to encourage people to take part. The researchers attended the service at a pre-arranged time and interviewed the parolees in parole interview rooms.

For unconditionally released ex-inmates, after initial contact was made with the host organisation, as with the probation and parole offices, staff were provided with information to give to potential interviewees. As with the parolees, an incentive of a $30 payment was offered. Researchers attended the service at a time and on a day convenient to the interviewee and the host organisation, and the interviews took place in the services' interview rooms or private offices.

It should be noted that among the ex-prisoner sample, seven interviewees who had originally been identified as having been released unconditionally by the host agency had subsequently been found to have originally been released on parole, though they were no longer on parole at the time of interview. However, given that six unconditionally released ex-prisoners had already been interviewed, the difficulties encountered in recruiting this group (perhaps because of their lack of formal requirements to report to services post-release) and the need for the project to progress to the analysis stage, further recruitment among this group was not pursued.

Interviews

Interviews with inmates and ex-inmates commenced with a short description of the Foundation and the research project. To ensure informed consent, researchers also ascertained from the potential interviewee that they were clear about the purpose of the interview. They were also provided with the appropriate information sheet and a consent form that was read out aloud to them by the researcher (see Appendix 3). The form indicated that participation was anonymous and voluntary, that the interviewee could choose not to answer any questions and that they could stop the interview at any time. It also specified that, with their permission, the interview would be recorded and transcribed and that the transcribed material would be kept securely. They were further assured that the recording would be erased once transcribed.

The consent form included a description of the researchers' obligation with respect to the disclosure of criminal activity and that otherwise the interview was confidential. Interviewees were also reassured that DCS would not be privy to interview recordings or transcripts. Researchers further ensured that interviewees were informed as to how and in what context the information they volunteered may be used. Once this procedure was complete and the interviewee agreed to go ahead with the interview, they signed the consent form, which was countersigned by the researcher. The consent form was detached from the information sheet, and the latter left with the inmate.

The interview schedules (one for prisoners and one for ex-prisoners) were in the format of a series of semi-structured, open-ended questions seeking information about the interviewees' experience of different legal problems, what steps they had taken (if any) to remedy them and the current status of that problem (see Appendix 4). The schedules covered a range of issues, including general legal issues, housing, employment and income, credit and debt, family, crime, victim of crime issues, health, other legal matters and access to legal assistance issues.

If an interviewee indicated that they had a legal problem but had not sought to resolve it, they were asked why that was so. The questions were worded in such a way that the inmate did not have to identify an issue as necessarily a 'legal' problem such that latent issues would not be missed. Interviewees were also asked specific questions about legal service provision they had received in the past and problems they may have had in accessing a legal service. The only difference between the interview schedule for current and released prisoners was that questions were phrased to reflect their current situation in terms of their incarceration.

Population and sampling

Stakeholders interviewed for this study fell into two major groups: DCS staff and other service providers.

DCS staff interviewees included prison welfare staff (including a financial counsellor), parole officers, library staff, education officers, policy workers, 'Throughcare'21 workers, and department managers working both within correctional centres and in head office. Interviewee selection was based on the analysis to date and recommendations from workers in the field.

Interviews were conducted with 23 legal and non-legal service providers who provide support to prisoners and people recently released from prison. Interviewee selection and recruitment of this group was based on the research team's knowledge of workers in the field, and further recommendations from the stakeholders interviewed. We interviewed staff from Legal Aid NSW and the ALS, specialist and generalist community legal centres, pro bono legal service providers, public defender staff, LawAccess staff, and some private barristers and solicitors; government agencies including Centrelink; advocacy and support groups, such as Community Restorative Centre (CRC) and Prisoners' Aid and Justice Action; other post-release support services (including Supported Accommodation Assistance Program (SAAP) and other homeless services); and, official visitors. A complete list of the agencies interviewed is contained in Appendix 5.

Procedure

Nineteen DCS staff were interviewed between February and August 2006 using semi-structured open ended interviews (see Appendix 4). Interviewees were provided with an information sheet and required to sign a consent form (see Appendix 3). Interviews were typically conducted on site in the staff member's office or another office space that provided a quiet and confidential environment. An interview schedule was developed specifically for DCS staff. One of the first steps required in the interview was a description of the role the staff member had in the department and the degree of contact they had with prisoners. Those staff members who had direct contact with prisoners were also asked to detail the degree to which prisoners came to them with legal issues, what legal issues did the prisoners require assistance and what did the staff member do in response to those requests. Interviews with head office staff focussed on obtaining a description of the systems that affected the legal needs of prisoners for which he or she was responsible and their opinion as to the impact of those systems.

Interviews with non-DCS stakeholders took place between December 2005 and May 2006 and were conducted face-to-face, mostly individually or in small groups of two or three. A roundtable consultation of legal practitioners was also held. The interview schedules included a number of open-ended questions, a subset of which was covered in all interviews. Further questions were tailored to the particular expertise of the interviewee. For example, the financial counsellor was asked more in-depth questions about credit and debt problems prisoners and ex-prisoners might face. Areas typically explored concerned the types of legal issues prisoners and ex-prisoners faced and what were the ways in which they tried to resolve those issues. Stakeholders were also asked about the particular types of legal issues for which prisoners/ex-prisoners requested assistance, and how the stakeholder dealt with that role. An example of interview questions used for these service providers can be found in Appendix 4.

As outlined in the information and consent forms for the prisoner and DCS staff interviewees, all data collected was considered confidential and could only be directly accessed by members of the research team. Three external transcribers were contracted to transcribe the majority of the interviews across the inmate and stakeholder samples. Researchers transcribed a small number of interviews when an interviewee expressed a particular concern about confidentiality and the researcher had consequently committed to personally transcribing that interview. The external transcribers were experienced in handling confidential social research interview material. They were required to sign a confidentiality agreement and meet specified security arrangements with the data. All transcription files once commenced were pass-worded and kept in computer folders with restricted access. Identifying information contained within the interviews was deleted or modified to protect interviewees' and their family/friends' identities in the transcripts and to ensure that publications arising from the project did not breach their privacy. All the names of inmate used in this report are pseudonyms.

Once both the stakeholder and inmate interviews were transcribed, the transcripts were entered into a qualitative software analysis program called QSR NUD*ST Vivo (Nvivo). This program assists in the organisation, storage and retrieval of qualitative data. It does not, however, impose any kind of pre-existent system of interpretation.

The analysis was conducted in two stages. In the first stage, the research team tagged segments of text with regard to its relevance to certain issues (e.g. DCS procedures, court procedures and government agency procedures) or whether the segments referred to the actions of the staff of such agencies, the inmates or their friends and family. To promote consistency of this process across the 109 interviews, a small number were coded by all researchers and then compared. From this procedure, a common coding system was developed and researchers further ensured consistency by frequently checking and rechecking coding decisions with the other researchers.

In the second stage, the data was then reviewed using the retrieval mechanisms of Nvivo, and it was then reanalysed for themes that recurred throughout the interviews around interviewees' decision-making processes. This was an iterative process whereby commonalities and systematic relationships were identified and then tested against the data. Preliminary observations made prior to the data being coded (e.g. issues identified while the interview data was still being collected) also informed this process. Departures from the major directions of these themes were also sought to ensure that the complexity of the responses of the interviewees was reflected in the analysis.

Although the findings described here have emerged from a systematic approach, it should be understood that because a quotation or practice has been included under one theme and interpreted in a certain way, this does not mean that we believe that that is the only way to interpret that event. Moreover, the aim of qualitative data analysis is to understand the meanings and processes associated with a particular phenomenon (Ezzy, 2001), in this instance, the access to legal information, advice, representation and participation in legal processes among prisoners. Consequently, the themes that are described here are selected, not so much for their popularity (although some of the strength of a theme may be related to the extent to which it is mentioned) but more for their ability to elucidate the experiences reported by the interviewees. Accordingly, qualitative analysis, in this context and more generally, focuses on the 'how' and 'why', rather than the 'how often'. This analysis consequently represents how the current researchers conceptualised the responses of the interviewees in relation to the central issues of the project. In this way, the themes described here, and the quotes used to illustrate them, should be viewed as only one approach to making sense of the data collected.



This facility also holds a small number of women in transit.
The age of two of the inmates was unknown.
The security classification for three inmates was unknown.
Throughcare officers are members of staff responsible for preparing inmates. accommodation, AOD treatment, etc. during the post-release period.

18  This facility also holds a small number of women in transit.
19  The age of two of the inmates was unknown.
20  The security classification for three inmates was unknown.
21  Throughcare officers are members of staff responsible for preparing inmates. accommodation, AOD treatment, etc. during the post-release period.


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Grunseit, A, Forell, S & McCarron, E 2008, Taking justice into custody: the legal needs of prisoners, Law and Justice Foundation of NSW, Sydney