Ethical Issues with Prison Ethnography
John M. Coggeshall
Every teacher's first day of class is a memorable experience, and mine was no exception. As I nosed my car into the visitor's parking lot that morning, I was filled with the same doubts and fears that grip other new college instructors. I glanced up at the low brick building guarded by the national and state flags and took a deep breath. The morning sun sparkled off the fresh dew on the grass and the barbed wire along the perimeter fence. My first teaching job was at a medium-security prison, and my first class consisted of sixteen male residents.
Teaching university courses inside a prison presented unique and challenging opportunities for fieldwork. This experience also introduced me to a field situation that requires the reconceptualization of some standard ethical decisions and practices often taken for granted by anthropologists. In general, the nature of the institutional setting itself and the complexity of social relationships inside make prisons different from most other ethnographic field situations.
Fieldwork for this study was conducted in two medium-security Illinois state correctional centers between 1984 and 1986. Hired to teach university-level anthropology courses, I presented three classes over four semesters to a total of forty-four adult inmates serving sentences of varying lengths and representing a range of ethnic identities characteristic of the overall prison population. On a typical visit I spent between five and eight hours in the prison. While there I also recorded observations and conducted interviews with administrators, guards, staff, and inmates. Both staff and inmates knew I was doing research, and the latter encouraged me to "use" them as informants. Conversations were held before and after classes and during meals and other breaks. I also corresponded with a student inmate both before and after his release; his comments and insights have proven invaluable.