Convict Criminology

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.