Convict Criminology Research Paper

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I. Introduction

II. What Is a Convict Criminologist?

III. Historical Background

IV. Convict Criminologists in 21st Century

V. Dealing With Discrimination and Providing Mutual Support

VI. The Activities of the Convict Criminology Group

VII. Important Contributions

VIII. Ethnographic Methodologies: Insider Perspectives

IX. Convict Criminology Policy Recommendations

X. Conclusion

I. Introduction

Convict criminology (CC) is a relatively new and controversial perspective in the practical field of criminal justice and the academic field of criminology. It provides an alternative view to the way crime and criminal justice problems are usually seen by researchers, policymakers, and politicians—many of whom have had minimal contact with jails, prisons, and convicts.

In the 1990s, CC started because of the frustrations that a group of ex-convict professors felt when reading the academic literature on crime, corrections, and criminal justice. For example, much of the published work on prisons reflected the views of prison administrators or university academics and largely ignored what convicts knew about the day-to-day realities of imprisonment. These former prisoners, who had since obtained higher university degrees, along with some allied critical criminologists, wanted research that reflected the observations and critical assessments of men and women who had done real time.

The emerging field of convict criminology consists primarily of essays, articles, and books written by convicts or ex-convicts studying for or already in possession of PhDs, some of whom are now employed as full-time academics. A number of other scholars sympathetic to the CC view also contribute. Convict criminologists often critique or challenge existing precepts, policies, and practices, thus contributing to a new perspective in the general field of criminology.

II. What Is a Convict Criminologist?

Some areas within the academic study of crime and corrections have shifted little from the pre-20th-century perspectives of Bentham, Beccaria, and Lombroso. These scholars of criminology’s “classical” period saw crime as pathological and failed to consider the social and political contexts within which criminal behavior is defined. Although many academic criminologists today hold more enlightened theoretical views, there is a tendency to identify with state-sponsored anti-crime agendas that target marginal populations for arrest, conviction, and incarceration. The result of such traditional approaches is that, of the approximately 2.2 million Americans currently behind bars, the majority belong to ethnic or racial minority groups and are disproportionately poor. Notwithstanding Edwin Sutherland’s breakthrough research into white-collar crime in 1940, the monumental crimes against property, the environment, and humanity that are committed by corporations and governments still go largely unprosecuted and unpunished. Identifying, explaining, and critiquing class-based inequalities of this type are of considerable interest to members of the CC group.

This is one of the reasons that some ex-convict and “non-convict” criminology and criminal justice professors self-identify as “convict criminologists” and join the CC fraternity. An academically qualified ex-convict who merges his or her real life experience and the perspectives derived from it with scholarly research into crime or prisons is generally referred to as a convict criminologist. However, having a criminal record is not a precondition of CC membership. So-called “cleanskin” researchers, with publications and work in the field, may also choose to join the group. Together, the collective intention is to conduct research that incorporates the experiences of defendants and prisoners and attempts to balance the representations of media and government. The value of this knowledge is that it may open the door to crime control strategies that are enlightened, humane, and, it is hoped, more effective than what is currently in place.

III. Historical Background

Historically, there have been numerous ex-convicts who have worked at universities in a variety of disciplines. Most of them have chosen to “stay in the closet,” so to speak, perhaps because their criminal histories were not relevant to their studies or because they were afraid of negative reactions from their colleagues or employers. One early exception was Frank Tannenbaum, sometimes referred to as the “grandfather of labeling theory,” political activist, former federal prisoner, professor at Columbia University in the 1930s, and one of the first to openly self-identify as an ex-convict. Tannenbaum served 1 year in prison, but he had a successful career first as a journalist, then as a celebrated scholar.

The modern-day intellectual origins of convict criminology began with the published work of John Irwin, especially his books The Felon (1970), Prisons in Turmoil (1980), and The Jail (1985). Irwin served 5 years in prison for armed robbery in the 1950s. In the late 1960s, he was a student of David Matza and Erving Goffman when he completed his PhD at the University of California at Berkeley. Still, even as he became a prominent prison ethnographer, and although many of his colleagues knew his background, his ex-convict history was apparent only to the close reader of his texts. Nevertheless, Irwin was out of the closet, conducting inside-prison research, but still nearly alone in his representation of the convict perspective.

On the heels of Irwin came Richard McCleary, who wrote Dangerous Men (1978), a book that came out of his experience and doctoral research when he was on parole from prison in Minnesota. McCleary has gone on to develop a well-respected career as a quantitative criminologist at the University of California at Irvine.

Ten years later, in Canada, an influential academic journal began that specialized in publishing the work of convict and ex-convict authors. Robert Gaucher, Howard Davidson, and Liz Elliot started The Journal of Prisoners on Prisons (JPP) in 1988. These Canadian criminologists were disappointed with presentations at the International Conference on Penal Abolition III held in Montreal in 1987, and they were concerned with the lack of prisoner representation. Twelve months later, JPP published its first issue, and to date it has published more than 20 issues featuring convict authors and other critical writers.

Despite these developments, through the 1980s there were still too few ex-convict professors to support Irwin, McCleary, or JPP in establishing an agenda based on convict research literature. Although in the 1970s and 1980s, the prison population was growing significantly, only a handful of ex-convicts were completing PhDs in sociology, criminology, and criminal justice. By the late 1980s, however, John Irwin was aware of a growing number of convicts who were gaining higher degrees while in prison or after they got out. At the 1989 American Society of Criminology (ASC) meetings in Reno, Nevada, he spoke to ex-convict professor Greg Newbold, who was attending his first conference, about the need for educated former prisoners to get together and start producing material that reflected their unique experience. He spoke about it regularly from that time forward.

It was at the ASC meetings that the CC concept was finally born. In 1997, Charles S. Terry (then a PhD student at the University of California at Irvine) was complaining to his professor Joan Petersilia about the failure of criminologists to recognize the dehumanizing conditions of the criminal justice system and the lives of those defined as criminal. Petersilia suggested that Terry put together a session for the 1997 ASC conference. Terry invited ex-convict professors John Irwin, Stephen Richards, Edward Tromanhauser, and PhD student Alan Mobley to participate in a session entitled “Convicts Critique Criminology: The Last Seminar.” This was the first time a collection of ex-convict academics had appeared openly on the same panel at a national academic conference. The session drew a large audience, including national media. That evening, over dinner, Jim Austin, Irwin, Richards, and Terry discussed the importance and possibilities of ex-convict professors working together to conduct inside studies of prisons and other criminological matters. Thus the group that became known as “convict criminologists” was eventually formed.

In the spring of 1998, Richards spoke with Jeffrey Ian Ross, a scholar (then working at the National Institute of Justice) and a former correctional worker about the possibility of editing a book using manuscripts produced by ex-convict academics. Almost immediately, Ross and Richards sent out formal invitations to individuals, including exconvict professors and graduate students and well-known critical authors of work on corrections. In short order, a proposal was written that would eventually result in the 2003 book Convict Criminology (Ross & Richards, 2003).

At the ASC’s 50th annual meeting in 1998 in Washington, D.C., Richards, Terry, and another ex-convict professor, Rick Jones, appeared on a panel honoring the famous critical criminologist Richard Quinney. Meanwhile, the group used the conference as an opportunity to find and recruit additional ex-convict professors and graduate students. Jones and Dan Murphy joined the informal discussion. The following year, at the ASC meeting in Toronto, Ontario, Canada, Richards organized the first official sessions entitled “Convict Criminology.”The two sessions, called “Convict Criminology: An Introduction to the Movement, Theory, and Research— –Part I and Part II,” included ex-convict professors Richards, Irwin, Tromanhauser, and Newbold (invited from New Zealand); ex-convict graduate students Terry, Murphy, Warren Gregory, Susan Dearing, and Nick Mitchell; and “non-con” colleagues Jeffrey Ian Ross, Bruce Arrigo, Bud Brown, Randy Shelden, Preston Elrod, Mike Brooks, and Marianne Fisher-Giorlando. A number of the papers presented at these two sessions were early versions of chapters that would later be published in Convict Criminology (Ross & Richards, 2003). From here the activities of the group have continued to expand, with nearly 30 CC sessions having been recorded at major criminology and sociology conferences as of 2008.

Richards and Ross coined the term convict criminology. In 2001, they published the article “The New School of Convict Criminology” in the journal Social Justice; in it, they discussed the birth and definition of CC and outlined the parameters of the movement and its research perspective. In 2003, they published the edited book Convict Criminology (Ross & Richards, 2003), which included chapters by the founding members of the group. The book’s foreword was written by Todd Clear, the preface was written by John Irwin, and it contained eight chapters by ex-convict criminologists as well as a number of supporting contributions from non-con colleagues writing about jail and prison issues. This was the first time ex-convict academics had appeared in a book together that included discussions of their own criminal convictions, their time in prison, and their experiences in graduate school and as university professors. In 2008, an ASC Presidential Plenary Convict Criminology Session was held, featuring Dave Curry, Irwin, Richards, and Ross.

IV. Convict Criminologists in 21st Century

The convict criminology group is informally organized as a voluntary writing and activist collective. There is no formal membership or assignment of leadership roles. Different members inspire or take responsibility for assorted functions, for example, lead author on academic articles, research proposals, or program assessments; mentoring students and junior faculty; or taking responsibility for media contact. The group continues to grow as more prisoners exit prison to attend universities, hear about the group, and decide to contribute to its activities. New members typically resolve to “come out” when they are introduced to the academic community at ASC or Academy of Criminal Justice Sciences conferences.

Today, the former prisoners of the CC group can be roughly divided into four categories. The first consists of the more senior members, all full or associate professors, some of whom already have distinguished research records. The second group consists of newly graduated PhD candidates who have recently entered the academic profession or are still looking for jobs. This group is just beginning to contribute to the research field. Within the third group are graduate student ex-convicts, some still in prison but nonetheless anticipating academic careers. The fourth group consists of men and women behind bars who already hold advanced degrees and publish academic work about crime and corrections. A number of them have authored or coauthored books and refereed articles with “free world” academics and are more frequently published than many professors. About the time that Convict Criminology (Ross & Richards, 2003) first appeared in print, several book publishers began taking the risk of publishing manuscripts written by prisoners assisted by established academics (e.g., Johnson & Toch, 2000).

At present, the CC group includes men and women ex-convict academics from Australia, Canada, Finland, New Zealand, Sweden, the United Kingdom, and the United States. The United States, with the largest prison population in the Western world, continues to contribute the most members.

Although such individuals provide CC with its core membership, some of the most important contributors may yet prove to be scholars who have never served prison time. A number of these authors have worked inside prisons or have conducted extensive research on the subject. The inclusion of these non-cons in the new school’s original cohort provides the means to extend the influence of the CC while also supporting existing critical criminology perspectives.

Convict criminologists, of course, are not the first to critique prisons and correctional practices. Many authors in the past have raised questions about prisons and suggested realistic reforms. Clear, in his foreword to the second edition of McCleary’s Dangerous Men (1992), wrote, “Why does it seem that all good efforts to build reform systems seem inevitably to disadvantage the offender?” (p. ix). The answer is that, despite the best intentions, reform systems have often ended up producing the opposite effects of what was intended. While recognizing that prisons are not built for the benefit of criminals, to achieve a desired outcome, a prudent social policy architect should surely consult members of the client group. One of the objectives of CC is to provide heuristically informed research and expertise of this type.

As is usually the case in academia, CC builds upon the foundations provided by chosen intellectual mentors. Erving Goffman, for example, made an enormous contribution with the insightful analysis of asylums (1961) and the development of the notion of stigma (1963). The scholarly work of Frank Tannenbaum (1938) on the dramatization of evil is also significant, as is the prolific work of critical criminologists such as Richard Quinney and William Chambliss. Many others, far too numerous to mention here, who have deconstructed myths, challenged the taken-for-granted, and searched for alternative meanings have impacted what people do and the way they think.

V. Dealing With Discrimination and Providing Mutual Support

In America, perhaps more than in other Western nation, felons suffer discrimination nearly everywhere they go in respectable society, in particular when applying for employment. Many end up giving in, opting instead for marginal lives and/or a return to crime.

Like other released prisoners, educated ex-convicts have also suffered discrimination when they enter universities. Academia, for all its liberal pretense, quest for diversity, and support for affirmative action, is often a hostile environment for ex-convict students and faculty. Many universities ask criminal history questions on student admission forms, and students may be denied financial aid, campus housing assignments, and employment because of their past convictions. Ex-convicts can legally be denied admission to graduate programs or graduate assistantship stipends in some states.

In a similar fashion, faculty appointments, promotions, and tenure may be subject to criminal background checks. Ex-convicts with PhDs may find it hard getting jobs or, if given jobs, they may be passed over for tenure, promotion, or consideration for administrative positions. Some university administrators may feel uneasy about having their photos taken with ex-convict professors. Other universities may be concerned that employing ex-convict professors will tarnish the image or reputation of their institutions. At some schools, ex-convict students and junior professors have reported faculty advising them to hide their past, conceal their identity, or simply keep a low profile, for example, by refusing media interviews, or publishing without discussing their criminal histories.

Senior members of the CC group ruminate over these matters frequently and consider responses to them. Matters relating to appointment, promotion, tenure, relationships with staff and students, and the problems people with criminal records have with international travel are all discussed within the group, and knowledge about how to deal with such issues is shared. As a convicted drug dealer, for example, Newbold is prohibited from entering many countries including (and especially) the United States. Yet he has entered the United States legally on a large number of occasions and travels regularly around the world. He readily shares with the group the lessons he has learned and the knowledge he has gained about obtaining foreign entry visas. Many ex-convicts in the group are concerned they will not be allowed to clear customs when attempting to enter foreign countries.

A number of convict criminologists have discussed the treatment they have experienced since being released from prison in the chapters they wrote for Convict Criminology. Some members have also talked of discrimination when interviewed by the media. Conversely, others have acknowledged the assistance they received from faculty and other persons sensitive to the pressures they are under.

As noted, problems with negative discrimination may be greater in the United States than in other nations. The United States is notoriously unforgiving where crime is concerned, being the only nation in the West that practices capital punishment and having a prison population approximately 4 times the size, on a per capita basis, of any other Western jurisdiction. The experience of non-American convicts is different from those in the United States. Newbold, for example, who served a 7 1/2-year sentence in New Zealand for selling heroin in the 1970s, has felt no obvious university discrimination at all. Paroled from prison, he won a prestigious doctoral scholarship, had no problem getting a job, has been rapidly promoted, and is now the most senior ranked member of the sociology department at the University of Canterbury. Although his criminal record is well-known, he has become one of New Zealand’s leading criminologists, and he moves easily within both criminal and law enforcement circles without comment or disadvantage. His experience, which is typical of ex-criminals in his country who have made efforts to get ahead, is that people judge an individual on his or her merits and go out of their way to help.

In America, however, where the situation is different, there are numerous ex-convict graduate students and faculty in the social sciences who choose to hide their criminal pasts for fear of professional recriminations, including losing their jobs, being denied research support, and exclusion within their communities. Some may even teach criminology or criminal justice courses, and publish on jails and prisons, yet still feel compelled to continue the deception.

VI. The Activities of the Convict Criminology Group

Members of the convict criminology group mentor students; organize sessions at regional and national conferences; collaborate on research projects; coauthor articles and monographs; help organize and support numerous groups and activities related to criminal justice reform; provide consulting services; and organize workshops for criminal defense attorneys, correctional organizations, and universities. For example, some members of the group have worked on major prison research projects in California, Illinois, Iowa, Kentucky, and Ohio. In New Zealand, Newbold has served a total of 13 government policy agencies either as a consultant or as a bona fide member. Collectively, the group has published books, journal articles, and book chapters using auto-ethnographic or insider perspectives. Private foundations, including the Soros Foundation Open Society Institute, have supported CC activities, including conference presentations and research. Individuals may serve as consultants or leadership for community groups working on prison issues or legislation.

The local and national media are interested in how convicts become professors and in their insider expertise, and they frequently interview group members. This is a powerful way of dispelling popular myths about criminals, making it important that convict criminologists become media savvy and learn how to answer questions in a clear, direct, informed, and concise way. The media love “good talent,” and journalists will continually return to contacts who provide them with useful copy. The media may also ask ex-convict professors to provide contacts for other stories. Ex-convict professors may also engage friendly journalists to assist with media promotion of CC work in universities, academic programs, and/or correctional programs. Media stories about the group have appeared in print in many countries.

All CC members mentor students with felony records at their respective universities. In doing so, they assist these students with the difficult job of adjusting to how having a criminal record may effect their expectations for deciding on academic programs and careers. Assistance may include parole board appearances, academic advising, emotional support, and/or preparation for employment or admission to graduate programs. Many group members also act as role models or advisors for convicts or ex-convicts who might be thinking about attending university. This mentoring of convicts, both young and old, recidivist or naive, is one of the convict criminologist’s most important roles. In a country like the United States, where more than 500,000 men and women get out of prison every year, there is a large potential population of former prisoners who will attend universities.

As a consequence of this work, CC is now being taught in universities as well as in prisons, providing a perspective that may be used as part or all of a course, or simply integrated throughout. In Wisconsin, a program called “Inviting Convicts to College” has been in place since 2004, training pairs of undergraduate intern instructors to go inside prisons to teach a free college programs entitled “Convict Criminology.” The course uses the book Convict Criminology (Ross & Richards, 2003), donated by the publisher, to inspire the prisoners. The course is taught 2 hours a week, for 14 weeks, and is supervised by ex-convict professors. Prisoners exiting prison use the course as a bridge to entering college, with the final weeks of the course including instruction on completing and submitting admission and financial aid forms. The prisoners soon learn that admission to college and financial aid grants and loans can be a viable parole plan. The program has already helped a number of prisoners to enter universities, where they receive advice and mentoring from members of the CC group.

VII. Important Contributions

Convict criminology continues to grow as numerous articles and books are added to the literature and the perspective is discussed in textbooks. The CC group emphasizes the use of direct observation and real-life experience in understanding the different processes, procedures, and institutional settings that comprise the criminal justice system. The methodology includes correspondence with prisoners, face-to-face interviews, retrospective interpretation of past experiences, and direct observation inside correctional facilities. The group is especially skilled in gaining entry to prisons, writing research questions, composing interview questionnaires in language that convicts can understand, and in analyzing prison records and statistics.

Much of the academic literature to date has discussed “the prison” abstractly, with little detail or differentiation between security levels, state or federal systems, or location within the country. When details were provided—for example, on prison conditions or social groups within the prison—the sources were often outdated. In addition to failing to identify the facility, state, or system, other articles have been written without interviewing the prisoners.

The CC perspective has contributed to the updating of studies on corrections and community corrections by remedying these deficiencies. CC scholars name the research sites so that the conditions they observe, and the concerns they raise, can be addressed. Although they are trained as scientists, they do not forget their duty to report what they find and help translate it into policy recommendations. With nearly 7 million Americans currently in the custody of correctional supervision, this is a critically important function.

VIII. Ethnographic Methodologies: Insider Perspectives

Convict criminology specializes in on-site ethnographic research, in which a researcher’s prior experience with imprisonment informs his or her work. Investigators are comfortable interviewing in penitentiary cellblocks, in community penal facilities, or on street corners, using a method that may include a combination of survey instruments, structured interviews, informal observation, and casual conversation. As former prisoners, convict criminologists know the “walk” and “talk” of the prisoners, how to gain the confidence of men and women who live inside, and how to interpret what they say. They also know prison rules and regulations and require less prison staff time for orientation and supervision. As a result, they have earned a reputation for collecting interesting, useful, and sometimes controversial data.

A number of significant ethnographic studies have emerged from this research. Irwin, for example, who served prison time in California, drew on his experience to write The Felon (1970), Prisons in Turmoil (1980), The Jail (1985), and It’s About Time (Austin & Irwin, 2001). McCleary, who did both state and federal time, wrote his classic Dangerous Men on the basis of his participant observation of parole officers. Terry, a former California and Oregon state convict, wrote about how prisoners used humor to mitigate the managerial domination of penitentiary authorities. Newbold wrote the New Zealand bestseller The Big Huey (1982) about his 5 years inside, followed by Punishment and Politics (1989), Crime in New Zealand (2000), The Girls in the Gang (Dennehy & Newbold, 2001)), and The Problem of Prisons (2007), all of which have analyzed crime and corrections in his country. Richards and Jones, both former prisoners, used inside experience to inform their studies of prisoners returning home. Finally, Ross and Richards coauthored Behind Bars (2002) and co-edited Convict Criminology (2003).

In their writing, group members are deliberately careful about the type of terminology they use, recognizing the powerful effect that certain forms of language may have. Official terms, such as correction (imprisonment), adjustment (segregation), behavior management (solitary confinement), and control and restraint (bashing/gassing/electrocuting/ handcuffing) is a way that prison administrators sanitize some of the less savory functions they perform. Convict criminologists are conscious of this and try not to use what they believe are misleading euphemisms in their writing. Conversely, there is also a lexicon of negative terminology of which we are equally aware. Referring to someone as a “robber,” a “burglar,” a “murderer,” or a “rapist,” for example, conjures up misleading stereotypical images created by sensationalistic fiction. The world is not easily dichotomized into “bad guys” and “good guys” as some television law-and-order shows or action movies might imply. In the real world, people who work or have lived with felons are often surprised at the reserve, sensitivity, gentility, and good humor of people who may have been convicted in the past of serious crimes. Working on the principle that a person is more than the worst thing he or she ever did, convict criminologists try to avoid referring to people in terms of the crime of which they were convicted, as if this were their master status. Instead, if they do allude to a person’s offending, it is usually in terms of the act itself rather than as a component of identity. In prison, they learned that you have to take some time to get to know a person, and when you do, you find that person’s crime may indicate very little about him or her.

IX. Convict Criminology Policy Recommendations

In terms of policy initiatives, convict criminology has two general orientations. First, convict criminologists wish to see a cessation of what Austin and Irwin (2001) called the “imprisonment binge” in America, which began in the 1980s and has caused the national prison population to more than double since 1990. The result has seen millions of citizens incarcerated, with immense cost to the taxpayer in terms of prison construction, operation and maintenance, overcrowded courts, overworked parole and probation authorities, and overburdened welfare agencies to which falls the task of supporting families whose primary breadwinner has been removed.

The reasons for the hike in prison numbers are well-known and have little to do with crime rates. At the base of the problem are certain elements within the mass media that exaggerate and sensationalize crime in the quest of increasing their market share of reader- or viewership. Citizens startled by the false specter of a “crime wave” are then preyed on by politicians who, trying to outbid their opponents for votes, attempt to allay public fears by promising to lock criminals up for long periods of time. Cruel sentencing laws have caused millions of petty offenders to receive extraordinarily long sentences. These laws have been complemented by the imposition of long parole periods after release, with strict conditions, rigorous monitoring, and hair-trigger violation components. By these mechanisms, released prisoners may be summarily returned to prison for supervision rule violations as trivial as having a beer, living at an unapproved address, failure to secure employment, or a bad drug test. U.S. prisons are increasingly being filled up by petty violators of this type, who, after years of crime-free liberty, can suddenly lose their jobs, marriages, and homes as a result of an unexpected visit from a gung-ho parole officer. Living with the Sword of Damocles dangling so precariously over their heads adds markedly to the stressful lives of prison parolees and decreases their ability to adjust to civil life though winning good jobs, getting married, and creating stable families.

The second orientation of the CC group concerns prison conditions themselves. Partially as a result of burgeoning prison populations, rising incarceration costs, crowded prison conditions and a thinning of resources, prison conditions have deteriorated (Ross, 2008). Budgets have tightened, and many prison programs have disappeared. An article written by Robert Martinson in 1974, which argued strongly that “nothing works” in prison reform, added weight to arguments that spending money on programs is a waste of time. This encouraged many American jurisdictions, already struggling under rising populations, to abandon programs and invest instead in expensive high-tech surveillance and security to manage prisoners. Thus, many prisons became warehouses for felons, where criminals are essentially kept in cold storage until they are paroled or their sentences expire. Unprepared for life in the real world after years of stagnation in the artificial environment of the prison, it is little wonder that so many are unable to survive on release and end up back inside.

These kinds of critical issues are the grist to the mill of the convict criminologist. Convict criminologists are committed to understanding and attempting to remedy the processes that have given the “land of the free” the largest and fasting-growing prison population in the history of the Western world. Within the context of the prison itself, they share a determination to expose and address a carceral environment that, although ostensibly created to prevent a prisoner from future offending, in fact produces social cripples whose return to a felonious lifestyle and further incarceration is virtually ensured.

In pursuit of the first objective, the CC group advocates dramatic reductions in the national prison population through a review of the kinds of crimes that get people sent to prison, shorter sentences, and an examination of the parole system. They argue for imprisonment only as a last resort for serious crimes, a return to more extensive use of diversion to community programs, and restrictions on parole length and reimprisonment for petty violations.

In pursuit of the second objective, convict criminologists support the closing of large-scale penitentiaries and reformatories where prisoners are warehoused in massive cell blocks. Over many decades, the design and operation of these “big house” prisons has dehumanized inmates and resulted in high levels of intimidation, serious assault, and sexual predation. A reduced prison population housed in smaller institutions could be accomplished by constructing or redesigning prison housing units with single cells or rooms, as is the case in many other advanced industrialized countries. In small prisons where prisoners are held in single-celled units of no more than 60, maintaining control and security is easier, and the incidence of sexual predation is close to zero. A number of European countries follow a similar model.

In addition to the preceding, legislators and policymakers need to listen carefully to prisoner complaints about bad food, old uniforms, lack of heat in winter or air-conditioning in summer, inadequate vocational and education programs, and institutional violence. The list grows longer when one takes a careful look at how these conditions contribute to prisoners being poorly prepared to reenter the community and the large number who return to prison.

Programs that were dissolved after the population boom began in the 1980s need to be reactivated. Prisoners should be provided with opportunities for better-paid institutional employment, advanced vocational training, higher education, and family skills development. Although it is true that most institutions have token programs that serve a small number of prisoners—for example, a prison may have paid jobs for 20% of its prisoners, low-tech training, a GED program, and occasional classes in life skills or group therapy— the great problem is that these services are dramatically limited in scope and availability.

Another matter that concerns convict criminologists is voting rights. The United States is one of the few advanced industrial countries that continues to deny prisoners and felons voting rights. If convicts could vote, many of the improvements suggested here might become policy, because politicians would be forced to campaign for convict votes. State and federal government will begin to address the conditions in prisons only when prisoners and felons become voters. One would not expect prisoners to be any less interested than free persons in exercising their right to vote. To the contrary, if polling booths were installed in jails and prisons, voter turnout would likely be higher than in most outside communities.

To prevent relapses into offending caused by desperation, convict criminologists advocate that prisoners released from prison should have enough “gate money” to allow them to pay for up to 3 months of rent and food. They could earn some of this money working in prison industries, with the balance provided by the state. All persons exiting correctional institutions should have clothing suitable for applying for employment, eyeglasses (if needed), and identification (social security card, state ID or driver’s license, and a copy of their institutional medical records).

The final and perhaps most controversial policy recommendation is eliminating the “snitch” system in prison (i.e., using inmates as informants). The snitch system is used by guards in old-style institutions to supplement their surveillance of convicts. It is used to control prisoners by turning them against each other and is therefore responsible for ongoing institutional violence. If our recommendations for a smaller population, single-cell housing, better food and clothing, voting rights, and well-funded institutional programming were implemented, the snitch system would become redundant. Small units are easier to manage and the demoralizing and dangerous cooptation of snitching inmates to assist in operational functions is unnecessary.

X. Conclusion

Since the conception of the convict criminology group more than a decade ago, there has been a steady increase in the number of exconvict academics willing to step forward and become a part of it. In doing so, they show a willingness to challenge the taken-for-granted and offer fresh insights into some of the oldest questions in sociology and criminology/criminal justice. As the group grows and these observations accumulate, a more complete and relatively current picture of modern prisons begins to emerge (see Irwin, 2005; Jones & Schmid, 2000; Newbold, 2007; Ross & Richards, 2002; Terry, 2003). Members of the group are able to write with authority about what they have observed or experienced in prisons located in different states and different countries.

The CC literature is now being cited regularly in textbooks and academic journals. There is a greater appreciation for first-person (auto-ethnographic) and retrospective accounts. Like Marx standing Hegel on his head, a social scientist needs to invert the musing of the philosopher. The CC collective encourages the exploration of alternative explanations and remedies that emanate from different perspectives drawn from extraordinary experiences. If academics wish to have a truly rounded picture of what happens in criminal justice, they need to listen to the victims of the system as well as to its architects and operators. It is only with the benefit of full and comprehensive knowledge that effective public policy can be drafted.

See also:


  1. Austin, J., & Irwin, J. (2001). It’s about time: America’s imprisonment binge. Belmont, CA: Thomson Learning.
  2. Carceral, K. C. (2004). Behind a convict’s eyes: Doing time in a modern prison (T. J. Bernard, L. F. Alarid, B. Bikle, & A. Bikle, Eds.). Belmont, CA: Wadsworth.
  3. Clear, T. (1992). Foreword. In R. McCleary, Dangerous men: The sociology of parole (2nd ed., pp. vii–x). Monsey, NY: Criminal Justice Press.
  4. Dennehy, G., & Newbold, G. (2001). The girls in the gang. Auckland, New Zealand: Reed.
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