Convict Criminology

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.