|Prisons keep people out just as they keep people in. This, of course, makes it difficult for researchers to probe the darker corners of prison life, especially prison culture. Ethnographers -- researchers who study prison culture from the point of view of prisoners through qualitative interviewing or participant observation -- have an especially difficult time. Not only must we navigate and negotiate prison administrators' concerns for security and public image to obtain their permission for access, but we also face a more recent, and in some ways more formidable, gatekeeper: The Institutional Review Board (IRB) of our schools. IRBs are charged with assuring that research protocols do not endanger human subjects. However, IRBs often seem to work at cross-purposes with academic freedom and free inquiry. Ironically, even as they assess research in order to protect human subjects, they not only subvert rigorous scholarship, but can -- through incompetence, ignorance, or over-zealous moral entrepreneuralism - put both subjects *and* researchers at risk.
In this paper, I provide a few examples of IRB proceedings to illustrate recent difficulties that scholars have faced in a variety of both ethnographic and survey research projects. I suggest that, in some ways, the IRBs have created for themselves an image of star chamber inquisitors. I conclude by offering several stratgies for presenting prison research proposals to the IRB.
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