Stephen Richards of Northern Kentucky University is a self-described “convict criminologist,” one of a small group of ex-convict professors who are challenging some of the academic establishment’s assumptions about prisons and inmates, the New York Times reports. With convictions ranging from drug trafficking to armed robbery to murder, they have tenure-track positions at universities, attend academic conferences, and act as mentors to current convicts who hope to join their ranks.
The movement has sparked controversy because of its leaders’ ideas, which were set forth this year in “Convict Criminology,” which Richards edited along with Jeffrey Ian Ross, a professor of criminology at the University of Baltimore (Thomson Wadsworth). The book argues that having spent time in jail, convict criminologists have a better understanding of the criminal justice system than professors who have studied prison from their offices. The former inmates engage in research to support their argument that incarceration is overused in the United States, which has a prison population of 2.2 million.
There are around a dozen ex-convict criminology professors; another dozen in late stages of their graduate school work, soon to become junior faculty members; and others studying for degrees in prison. The Times reports that “most say they are motivated toward academia by a combination of idealism and practicality: deeply affected by the experience of prison, they share an urge to improve conditions for fellow inmates. And because getting jobs in the private sector is difficult for those with felonies on their records, academia offers at least the chance of a career.”
Criminologist John Irwin of San Francisco State University, who spent five years in prison for armed robbery, says, “A lot of convicts want to make use of their time and come out better prepared. This couples with the fact that you can never get away from your prison experience.”
The movement got its start in 1997 at the annual meeting of the American Society of Criminology. Charles Terry, an ex-heroin addict who spent 12 years in prison for various crimes and who is now a criminology professor at St. Louis University, said he was frustrated by a cold, statistical approach by mainstream colleagues. He organized a panel of ex-convict professors to speak candidly about their experience in jail. Later, Terry and Irwin organized panels of ex-convict criminologists at other conferences. After several years of telling war stories, the ex-con criminologists pursued serious research. Since getting a doctorate in 1999, Terry has published two books. Richards has published 40 articles and is finishing his fifth book.