II. What Is a Convict Criminologist?
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.