Convict Criminology

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.