Stop asking me to bleed for you for 50 bucks

Stop asking me to bleed for you for 50 bucks

Tabitha Lean calls for an end to exploitation in research practices. (Image: IndigenousX)

By Tabitha Lean / Budhin Mingaan | @haveachattabs

I started this article on the evening of January 26. It had been a fairly uneventful day for me. A privileged thing to say, and rare for a Blak fulla living in a regional town. We’d purposefully not gone out much. When I did, I wore my Ngurrbul Baadhin Invasion Day t-shirt, scoffed at the “Australia Day” paraphernalia, and stayed off social media.

That is, until I logged onto Twitter at about 8 pm that night. The first thing I came across was an academic’s post promoting some research she was undertaking into women’s experience of pregnancy and childbirth in prison.

The study being promoted was titled “Mothers in prison” and was designed to better understand women’s experiences of being pregnant or giving birth in prison and the services available during pregnancy and following birth. The participants would be required to take part in an interview with a researcher from a university for approximately an hour and they would receive an $80 gift card as a thank you for their time.

I’m not sure if it was the particular day of the year that they posted this call-out that added to the offence I took, or if I generally had just had enough of this malarkey, but I saw red – ruby red, absolute rage-filled red. I couldn’t believe that this was what was getting my blood boiling on January 26. I retweeted the research advertisement, scoffing at the meagre $80 compensation, and issued a rallying call for us to have a conversation about the epistemic violence that people with lived experience of incarceration are subjected to over and over again.

Almost instantly, a member of the research team, while sympathetic to my concerns, accepted that $80 was inadequate but defended their position on the basis that the project was grossly underfunded. 

So, here’s the rub. These research projects are always underfunded. In fact, I have never met a university research team who have not bemoaned the lack of funding they have attracted for their work. However, despite the “low budgets”, academics manage to draw a salary, while the research subjects (us criminalised mob) are called to testify and have our stories bought at bargain basement prices because funding parameters are unable to adequately compensate us for our stories. Then, the expertise they take from us is used to build the careers of academics under the guise of knowledge production. The purchased stories are commodified over the years and used over and over again, in multiple publications, in multiple ways. 

To be fair though, the buying and selling of people’s stories is not unique to the particular research that got my blood boiling on that evening; it is commonplace and, while I am a fan of reciprocity, I guess the question I am asking is, what price do we place on a person’s story?

Many researchers have built their careers off the backs of stories they heard as early researchers, trotting out that qualitative data for years to come, while the people who supplied the raw data have no recourse, nor any entitlement or any kind of royalty for their story. The criminalised community are exploited regularly for their stories; and criminologists, social workers and researchers in the field of social sciences are notorious for their $50 call-outs. To be fair though, the buying and selling of people’s stories is not unique to the particular research that got my blood boiling on that evening; it is commonplace and, while I am a fan of reciprocity, I guess the question I am asking is, what price do we place on a person’s story?

In my mind, researchers are no different to the early colonisers: embarking on relentless waves of “exploration” and “discovery” and extracting knowledge, all the while viewing the expertise of those with lived experience as nothing more than a resource to be plundered. There is literally nothing people will not colonise, and in this case birth stories – the most sacred of our stories, those related to the creation of life – were a commodity that could be bought for *checks notes* $80. 

In this country, research is governed by ethics committees who determine the conditions under which research should proceed. I am told by friends who are doing research work that they have put in proposals to reimburse research participants at a larger rate, and ethics committees have rejected their proposals on the basis that the proposed remuneration is tantamount to “coercion” or “undue inducement”. I find this laughable.

Who are these people that sit on these committees determining appropriate remuneration for both time and trauma? On what basis are they distinguishing between compensation and coercion? Where are they drawing that line? Why must we (the research subjects) be motivated by altruism for our contribution to research to be considered legitimate? As if I owe anything to science! As if science has the right to demand that my motives be pure – as if they have the right to demand that I not profit in this process. God forbid I profit from my tales of woe!

(It is also worth noting that when I asked a member of this particular research team if there was anyone with lived prison experience on the three ethics committees that considered this research – because, well, how can you understand the nuances of the ethics of a particular population group if you are not from that group? – the team was unable to advise. This raises huge red flags for me and major questions about so-called ethics committees’ domination of lived prison experience research. After all, there should be nothing about us, without us.)

The point of coercion, therefore, does not rest with the amount of money a research project is offering, but rather is reflective of the destitute position that the criminal punishment system has left me and many others in.

However, back to the question of financial inducements as coercive compensation: as a criminalised woman, I am regularly asked to contribute to various research agendas. Oftentimes, I consent to participate – not for altruistic reasons, not to advance science or sociology, but because, as a criminalised woman with three kids, I live well below the poverty line and the offer of a $50 Coles voucher means I will be able to buy food that week. The payment being offered, no matter how meagre and pathetic, is an incentive that motivates my participation. The point of coercion, therefore, does not rest with the amount of money a research project is offering, but rather is reflective of the destitute position that the criminal punishment system has left me and many others in.

Basically, I am poor, so show me a little money and I’ll give you a story even if it robs me of my dignity, sanity or wellbeing for the hour, day or week. Ethics committees likely do not consider this, because they are not a committee constituted of people like me. And while they are so busy worrying about coercion, who is worrying about exploitation? Someone needs to be – because expecting a woman who birthed a baby in prison to bleed for you for the pitiful sum of $80 is outright exploitation.  

So, this mini-Twitter storm on January 26 was a strange way to spend my evening. It should be noted that the only member of the research team to engage meaningfully with me about my concerns was the Aboriginal research contact.  I accept that for Aboriginal people on research teams, there is both tension and responsibility. How to navigate the maze of ethical issues? How to criss-cross epistemological tightropes?

However, I guess if we are a part of these western schools of knowledge – even if we are at times the Black cladding for these research programs – then we have some complicity in these structures, and we must be accountable to our community’s questions and inquiries. I am grateful that my questions were addressed by the Aboriginal contact, because the lead researcher, while apparently highly experienced in this field of research, responded that she was “crap at Twitter and didn’t want to inflame debate” but had taken on board my views.

As a Blak criminalised woman, I am largely excluded from the western lexicons of knowledge, but I can recognise distributive unfairness when I see it. Researchers in all areas of knowledge production must understand that epistemic trust has an irrepressible connection with social power, and when conducting research in and on criminalised subjects, our severe and enduring social disadvantage can and will produce and reproduce unjust epistemic disadvantage. It is your duty to ensure you are not exploiting us. It is your duty to be better human beings and fellow citizens. It is your duty to do better.

So, what can you, as an academic curious about the carceral world, do differently? 

For a start, you can stop applying for research money to explore the prison system only to expand the reach or efficacy of the carceral system. Do you honestly think that we want kinder and gentler birthing services in prison? No, we want every pregnant person released from a cage to be cared for in our community so they can receive quality, Medicare-funded health services and birth their baby surrounded by their loved ones. We want you to get research dollars to work on abolition strategies – real abolition, not some watered-down version, where reform creeps in as the compromise. Start building decarceration plans. Tell us how you plan to tear down the bricks and mortar of jails. Use your science to tell us how you plan to cut the shackles from our ankles and how we can safely defund the police and build a world based on radical reciprocity. Use your knowledge to help us build communities of care and mutual aid networks. 

Help free us. 

And if you need my story, make me co-author of your journal article, and pay me well for it. Don’t make me bleed for a pittance, because the scars I bare run deep, and this expertise I hold is not yours to keep. 

Be better. Do better.

Because when we all do well, we all do well.

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