Amy B. Smoyer, PhD

Prison Food, Incarcerated Lives, Health & Social Work

Coding Protein Pellets

Obsessed Woman Neglects Domestic Duties
Jaime recently accused me of being obsessed with my computer. I like to think of myself as a disciplined person committed to meeting self-imposed deadlines, but obsessed probably does capture this mind-set more succinctly. So, obsessed it is.

The computer task that has engaged me so thoroughly this month is called "coding". Like most research jargon, this is an everyday word which is being used in a way that makes no apparent sense. And we wonder why research findings have a hard time making it into community conversation...

Coding is a qualitative research technique used to manage and analyze data. In other words, it's a way to sort the stories in order to identify patterns and relationships. The categories into which the data are "coded" constitute the study's "coding tree." Researchers can head into a project already knowing what topics they want to follow, or build the coding tree as they go along. In my project, I did a little bit of both.

If you want to see my coding tree, click here. Some of the codes are concrete items like types of food, specific food activities or locations: Cake, Trading, Police Lock Up. Others are more conceptual and interpretive:  Distrust, Surveillance, Hunger.  Keep in mind that this tool is, like everything else in life, constantly evolving.

Once all of the data has been coded, I will be able to run reports that show how these codes intersect and divide. For example, where are women most likely to describe being hungry? (A:  During Intake. Welcome to prison.)  Are narratives of distrust more common in the interview data from White women or African American women? (A:  You guessed it.)

Consider the following passages:

P15:  Yeah, oh, “I hate slop.  I won’t eat slop.”  I mean you’re kind of lucky to be, like, you could be in a different country and be fighting for food in jail...Niantic is not really that bad.  I am a pretty hoity girl in a lot of ways and Niantic is not that bad, is all I’m saying.  It sucks, but it’s not that bad.
Coded:  White; 30-49 yrs old; 1-3 mo sentence; Slop; Positive; Neoliberalism
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P21:  I think that with as much money as they get for us being there.  They could serve us at least, either more food or like, when we ask for something they could give it to us and not be so mean about it.  Or, serve better food, like healthier food because, slop, that’s like.  I wouldn’t even serve, I wouldn’t even, I don’t know, I wouldn’t want anyone to go through that.  Not even my worst enemy.  Like, that, that was pretty bad.
Coded:  Hispanic; Under 30 yrs old; 1-3 mo sentence; Slop; Legitimacy; Apathetic Institution; Good Person
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P23:  Because, the pellets that they put, in the, in the slop.  They put protein pellets in your slop.  To make up for the nutrients, like they don’t give us, they don’t give us, like, um, um, real meat.  They don’t give us real meat.  They give us like a chicken pattie, or, um, one time they give us one piece of chicken, but they don’t give us like pork chops, or, um, spaghetti, you know, stuff like that.  They don’t give us stuff like that.  You know, so they put, I guess, like protein pellets in the food to make us for what they don’t feed us.
Coded:  African-American, 30-49 yrs old; 4-6 mo sentence; Protein Pellets; Resentment; Legitimacy
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Might one person code for "Resentment" while another cites "Distrust"? What is the difference between those two terms anyway? Doesn't counting up the number of times people mention "slop" and comparing these frequencies across race constitute quantitative analysis? A: Yes. Good Question. Kind of. Now that I've gotten your attention, sign up for my Research Methods class next Fall, and we can talk some more. Until then, back to my obsession.