History of Convict Criminology

A Brief Introduction and History of Convict Criminology

As the collateral consequences of mass incarceration persist in the United States, Convict Criminology (CC), as a group, grows and evolves to meet the ever-present need for the incarcerated/formerly-incarcerated voice within criminological scholarship. This page charts the history and growth of CC, as ell as highlights early trailblazers such as Frank Tannenbaum and John Irwin.

Early Trailblazers of Convict Criminology

It should be noted that CC existed prior to the formal assembling of the group in the late 1990s. Before CC was recognized as a collective and academic perspective, there were formerly incarcerated individuals who made substantial contributions to the study of criminology. One of the earliest individuals to function as a convict criminologist was Frank Tannenbaum. The formal discipline of CC did not exist during Tannenbaum's era, but his life experiences, devotion to social justice issues, and academic work closely align with the practices of CC. Tannenbaum spent a year in prison for unlawful organizing of a labor rally. He wrote numerous papers based on his incarceration experience, and later published a popular criminological textbook, Crime and the Community (1937).

Another formerly incarcerated criminologist who became a founding member of the CC group was the late John Irwin, who passed away in 2010. Irwin was a Professor of Sociology and Criminology for more than two decades San Francisco State University. Irwin authored a litany of books that drew on his lived-experience, including: The Felon (1970), Prisons In Turmoil (1980), The Jail (1985), It’s About Time (1994, with James Austin), The Warehouse Prison (2005), and Lifers (2009).  In addition to his books, Irwin wrote a multitude of journal articles. As a formerly incarcerated academic, he was a tireless advocate for the rights of the people both within prison, and formerly incarcerated individuals reintegrating within society. Irwin used his social capital and resources as a respected and highly regarded academic to assist in the establishment of CC in the late 20th century. Irwin also served as a mentor and steadfast supporter of several other founding members of the group. Irwin's legacy helped pave the way for current junior members of the group and demonstrated that formerly incarcerated individuals can use higher education to become productive pro-social academics.

 

Formation of the Convict Criminology Group

With the emergence of the “War on Drugs” and the “tough on crime” movements, criminal justice policy and practice in the late 20th century took a more punitive turn. The impacts of these punitive policies were felt throughout American society and they had a particularly harmful effect on disadvantaged and marginalized communities. Mass incarceration has particularly impacted the poor, racial and ethnic minorities, and males living in impoverished neighborhoods. In 1997, out of the chaos and social upheaval of this environment, a group of formerly incarcerated students and scholars of criminology, criminal justice, and political science, convened with several scholars/academics who, although not having experienced incarceration, had first-hand knowledge concerning the socially destructive and oppressive effects of mass incarceration. The impetus for meeting and forming a group of self-proclaimed “convict criminologists” came from the frustration that formerly incarcerated students and faculty feeling that their voices, wisdom, and concerns were ignored. CC members with lived-experience within the criminal justice system have experienced directly the system of oppression, structural bias, and discrimination which incarcerated individuals endure every day in the United States. Early CC scholars discovered that academia and the institutions of higher education could serve as powerful and legitimate conduits through which to deliver their knowledge and voices to society. Unfortunately, these early CC scholars learned that many discriminatory practices and institutional bias were also present in academia.

 

Convict Criminology establishes itself as an academic perspective

CC held its first session at the American Society of Criminology (ASC) in 1997, and members began writing scholarly books and submitting articles for peer review in scholarly journals. In 2001, Stephen C. Richards and Jeffrey Ian Ross wrote one of the initial definitive articles of CC, Introducing the School of Convict Criminology, which announced our presence and perspective to the academic world. Shortly thereafter, Ross and Richards published the first book, Convict Criminology (2003), which compiled the writings of several of the early members and contributors within the CC group. Multiple, well-received sessions at ASC’s annual meetings and ongoing publications in reputable peer-reviewed journals granted CC further legitimacy. At the same time, formerly incarcerated individuals, identifying themselves with CC, were becoming undergraduate students, graduate students, researchers, and professors in criminology, criminal justice, and sociology departments all over the world.  

 

Convict Criminology in the 21st Century

As CC moves into the twenty-first century, the substance and scope of its inquiry continues to develop. Mass incarceration has not ended and the prison industrial complex continues to contribute to and support the world’s largest prison system. Likewise, correctional facilities are notorious for being poorly operated, poorly managed, and  remain dangerous for both incarcerated citizens and staff. Additionally, the United States' failed “War on Drugs” persists, which has exacerbated the methamphetamine and opiate epidemics. This, in turn, fills correctional facilities with hundreds of thousands of substance addicted citizens, and creates stronger illicit drug markets for foreign and domestic drug traffickers. Historically oppressed racial and ethnic minorities account for a disproportionate percentage of the jail and prison population, and most of the citizens incarcerated by the “War on Drugs” continue to originate from positions of economic disadvantage. At the same time, the profit-driven private prison industry is experiencing a boom under the repressive immigration and criminal justice policies being perpetrated by the current presidential administration. With the development of the ever-increasing numbers of U.S. citizens cycling through the world’s largest criminal justice system, more and more people are being released back to the streets who are interested in improving their life chances and opportunities through higher education.  Many such people are finding their way to CC. 

References

Tietjen, G. E. (2019). Convict Criminology: Learning from the Past, Confronting the Present, Expanding for the Future. Critical Criminology, 27(1), 101-114.

Yeager, M. G. (2015). Frank Tannenbaum: The Making of a Convict Criminologist. Routledge.

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