Legal and Ethical Obligations in Social Research: The Limited Confidentiality Requirement

By Zinger, Ivan; Wichmann, Cherami et al. | Canadian Journal of Criminology, April 2001 | Go to article overview

Legal and Ethical Obligations in Social Research: The Limited Confidentiality Requirement


Zinger, Ivan, Wichmann, Cherami, Gendreau, Paul, Canadian Journal of Criminology


We responded to three critiques of our study on the effects of 60 days in administrative segregation in the last issue of this journal, and believed that we had responded to all possible attempts at "knowledge destruction" (Andrews and Bonta 1998). We were wrong. Palys and Lowman reached new levels of knowledge destruction when they accused Carleton University, the Correctional Service of Canada (CSC), and our research of breaching legal and ethical standards.

We are concerned about their unsubstantiated allegations, but even more disturbed about the misleading course of action they propose to the readers of this journal. Although, to our knowledge, they possess no legal training, they nonetheless provided legal advice (recommending a course of action based on an analysis of the law) (Palys and Lowman 2000).(2) Their legal analysis selectively employs passages of jurisprudence and ethical codes which support their views to the detriment of their audience. We would, therefore, like to complete their analysis and highlight some important legal and ethical provisions that were clearly overlooked.

With respect to the federal correctional legal framework and the penitentiary environment, the Corrections and Conditional Release Act (CCRA 1992: ss. 4(a) and 5(a)) stipulates that CSC is responsible for the care and custody of prisoners and that the protection of society is the paramount consideration in the corrections process. The fact that CSC has a positive obligation to ensure that the penitentiary environment is safe and secure is also expressed throughout the CCRA, the regulations, and CSC policy. For many reasons, it remains a significant corporate challenge for CSC to meet this obligation: the penitentiary environment remains a dangerous place. The prevalence of suicide and violence in penitentiaries by far exceeds the prevalence among the community at large. The following facts highlight the challenge faced by CSC:

* In 1999, 56% of admissions to federal penitentiaries were for Schedule I offences, which include homicide, attempted murder, robbery, and sexual assault (Canadian Centre for Justice Statistics 2000). Moreover, many prisoners who committed violent offences serve the majority of their sentence in higher security institutions -- which possess segregation units.

* Forty major assaults on prisoners, two major assaults on staff, eight murders of prisoners, and eleven suicides were committed in Canada's penitentiaries during fiscal year 1999/2000 (Correctional Service of Canada 2000).

* In his latest annual report, the Correctional Investigator (Canada's federal prison ombudsman) reported that "CSC's use of force statistics, for the first half of this year, recorded five hundred and fifty one use of force incidents. These incidents resulted, according to the Service, in one hundred and twenty five inmate injuries" (Correctional Investigator 2001).

* There have been more than 731 male prisoners who have attempted suicide between 1990 and 1999 (Wichmann, Serin, and Motiuk, 2000).(3)

* A recent statistical profile indicates that a majority of segregated prisoners were placed in segregation due to the potential risk they posed to others or the security of the institution (Wichmann and Nafekh 2001). Further, segregated prisoners have been found to have more extensive criminal histories (including a higher proportion of violent offences) and to be higher risk (static and dynamic) than non-segregated offenders (Motiuk and Blanchette 1997).

Threats of violence or self-injurious behaviour in such an environment cannot be ignored. Indeed, in ethically engaged and informed research, such circumstances, unhappy though they may be, are clearly foreseeable. Moreover, in the context of segregation, threats of violence are perhaps even more likely to take place since many offenders are segregated (involuntarily and for disciplinary reasons) for their assaultive behaviours. …

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