Research at Sing Sing

One of my very first jobs was interviewing inmates in maximum-security prisons in New York State. It was part of an evaluation of a parenting class for male inmates, which is a unique offering: a lot of organizations focus on incarcerated mothers, but very few pay attention to dads. Students learned about child development, effective communication strategies, and how to be a dad through letters, phone calls, and visits.

Since I didn’t have any other jobs to compare it to (except for teaching English in Africa as a Peace Corps volunteer), I thought this was a great gig. At the beginning and end of every semester, a few colleagues and I would get in a van and drive a few hours north of the city. We would stay in a cheap motel near the facility, usually two or three to a room. (Imagine my culture shock when, a few years later, I started working for PR agencies that thought nothing of flying me to Chicago every week and had corporate rates at the W.)

Research at Sing SingEarly in the morning, we’d go through a pretty harrowing security process at the prison. Understandably, there is some tension between corrections officers and civilians who are perceived to be “on the inmates’ side.” Scowling guards would search our bags, confiscating contraband like eyedrops or hair gel that contained alcohol. Once I was denied entry because I was wearing sandals (luckily, I had running shoes in the van to change into; it was definitely a fashion “don’t,” but I got in).

We would give the respondents a pre-interview briefing, informing them that they were not obligated to answer any questions, outlining the risks and benefits of participation, and giving them contact information for the principal investigator in case they had questions about the research. Invariably, someone would ask if the PI would accept collect calls “because that’s the only kind of call we can make.” During the interviews, a guard lurked nearby, once lunging at an inmate who tried to make off with my ballpoint pen (it’s a potential weapon).  When the buzzer sounded, indicating that it was time for the count, guys would bolt from my table, often in mid-sentence; the repercussions for missing the count were severe.

I loved this job, not only because I really believed in the organization I worked for, but because after doing this kind of interviewing, anything else feels like a walk in the park!