When I commenced my Doctorate in health research in 2012, my biggest concern was how I would access the prison institution and the women I wished to interview. My research question was: What is the experience of pregnant women in an English prison? – therefore it was imperative that I gained ethical approval, was able to undertake fieldwork in a woman’s prison and that pregnant women were able to consent and participate in my research.
Women in prison are an especially disadvantaged group who may have suffered abuse in childhood, domestic violence, be homeless and/or addicted to drugs. Therefore, researching the experiences of a potentially vulnerable group meant that robust ethical procedures, quite rightly, needed to be in place.
|Owen Burn on Flickr via CC by 2.0|
With much negotiation, networking and persistence, I was able to gain access and following ethical approval, I spent ten months in the field (observing prisons) and was able to interview 28 women and 10 staff members for my qualitative research. What I was unprepared for, was the effect that leaving the field and saying goodbye to research participants and staff would have on me personally and more importantly the possible effect on the women.
As a nurse and a midwife, I have always been encouraged to reflect on my practice and this was also important when undertaking research. During the period of my fieldwork, alongside the support of my research supervisors, I sought out psychotherapeutic supervision with a forensic psychotherapist to ensure I was not inadvertently ‘doing harm’. It was important that I was aware that I could inadvertently ‘trigger’ feelings of abandonment by not setting clear boundaries of when I would be leaving.
I am a person who finds goodbyes difficult and therefore it was important that I addressed this before I left the field. Curious about what ethical procedures were in place, I began to search the literature and guidelines; yet found there was very little written about ‘leaving the field’ and most papers and books talk about negotiating with ‘gatekeepers’ to gain access to the research setting alongside the ethical behaviours of the researcher whilst undertaking the study (e.g. ensuring consent). My fieldwork diaries were a useful way of articulating my feelings about ethical issues and the research environment:
I step in to prison as a midwife researcher, but step out again as a mum, midwife and lecturer. I get my phone back- a symbolic of transition from inside prison to outside prison. Once again, I am in touch with reality - my reality - I feel like I'm coming around after a dream, and it's a bit disorientating. I’m relieved to be out, yet guilty at leaving women behind. (Field notes, March 2016).
Nonetheless, the feelings I articulated could be shared with my research supervisors, clinical supervisors and partner. I questioned where women could go with their complex feelings; which they often suppressed, as my research analysis discovered. Women candidly shared their experiences with me and the interviews were often viewed as ‘therapeutic’ therefore I had to be careful to ensure I ‘did no harm’.
|Erik Wilde on Flickr via CC 2.0|
Several women had follow-up interviews with me and I therefore took care to ensure I informed them that my research was coming to a close. Clear boundaries were essential as I planned my departure from the field and I admit, I found leaving challenging. I could have continued my fieldwork and interviews, yet through reflection and discussion, I came to understand that leaving ethically was as important as gaining access in prison research.
Laura Abbott is a Senior Lecturer in Midwifery at The University of Hertfordshire and leads on a number of post graduate and undergraduate modules including complex social issues and perinatal mental health. Laura has undertaken a professional doctorate researching the experiences of women who are pregnant in prison: The Incarcerated Pregnancy: An Ethnographic Study of Perinatal Women in English Prisons. She was awarded the Jean Davies award in 2014 and Midwives award in 2017 from The Iolanthe Midwifery trust for her research and work with women. Laura volunteers for the charity Birth Companions supporting perinatal women in prison and co-authored The Birth Charter for pregnant women in England and Wales published in May 2016. Laura has presented her research nationally and internationally to a multi-disciplinary audience and has written many peer reviewed publications. Laura lives in Bedfordshire with her husband and three sons.