Although challenges and barriers to researchers' access are common across any number of empirical sites in socio-legal research—as suggested by the very nature of this special issue and the call for papers that generated it—it has been suggested recently that prisons and other institutions of penal confinement provide a particularly troubling case study. For instance, Loïc Wacquant argues that “the ethnography of the prison thus went into eclipse at the very moment when it was most urgently needed on both scientific and political grounds.” Although the causes of the decline as understood by Wacquant transcend problems with access (principally, for Wacquant, a transition from the “maternalist (semi-) welfare state to the paternalist penal state”), access, by all accounts, is an ongoing and significant concern. As Kimberly Jacob Arriola summarizes, “conducting research in correctional settings is extremely difficult. Inmates (and any other institutionalized population for that matter) are considered a special population deserving of additional research protections… Moreover, many correctional administrators may not see research as a priority and not want researchers ‘poking around’ for fear that they may discover something less flattering.”
Of course, one must be careful not to overstate the paucity of research inside penal institutions, especially given that the decline was probably less severe outside the US, and given that the last half dozen or so years have marked somewhat of a renaissance of scholarship on life inside carceral facilities. Also, the partial decline should not be taken as grounds for lionizing those researchers who do gain/have gained access to prisons and jails to carry out socio-legal research.