Convict Criminology

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.