From Corrections to College: The Value of a Convict's Voice

Article excerpt

Abstract: The rise in mass incarceration has been accompanied by an abandonment of first-hand, in-depth accounts of crime and incarceration. Too few criminologists have stepped foot inside a prison, let alone served time within its walls. Situated within a growing movement of convict criminology, this article provides a first-hand account of the abuse convicts often experience in the home, the streets, and later in prison. Breaking from the traditional scholarly format, this autobiographical article not only highlights the importance of a convict's voice, but also calls on criminologists to move beyond official data sources and crime reports to a more in-depth exploration of complex lives of the incarcerated and formerly incarcerated.

Keywords: convict criminology; incarceration; corrections; prison industrial complex

The era of mass incarceration has given birth to what has been titled the New School of Convict Criminology, a revolution in critical criminology that privileges the voice of the incarcerated and formerly incarcerated (Ross and Richards 2003; Jones, Ross, Richards, and Murphy 2009). To the shock of the general public and the amazement of some mainstream criminologists, the formally convicted offender, who has gone on from prison to complete a higher degree, typically a doctorate, has increasingly joined the ranks of academia and is fighting to gain a significant voice in criminology and penal policy. Ironically, at a time when 2.3 million people are locked behind bars, there has been a conspicuous absence of first-hand accounts of prison life in the criminal justice literature (Wacquant 2002). Labeling theorist Howard Becker long ago warned that much of criminal justice literature fails to provide in-depth accounts of the daily lives and thoughts of those who carry the label of "criminal" (Becker 1963). Although there have been several ethnographies of and by offenders (see for example, Cromwell 2009; Rewttig 1999; Canada 1996), and classic ethnographies and prison commentaries have been written by ex-convicts (Irwin 1970; 1985; McCleary 1978), nearly 50 years after Becker's call for more in-depth, first-hand accounts of crime and criminal justice institutions, this charge remains largely unanswered. Despite the steady growth of convict criminology, most research continues to be plagued by what Polsky (1969) called "courthouse sociology," a methodological approach confined to analyses of official data sets and crime reports. As a result, few researchers venture outside their air-conditioned university offices into the social worlds of those they are attempting to study (Richards and Ross 2003; although important exceptions include Richard Wright and Scott Decker 1996; 1997; Jody Miller 2001; Jeff Ferrell 1996; 2006, among others).

Coming on the heels of over a decade of convict criminology (Irwin 1970; Terry 1997; Richards and Ross 2003; Jones et al. 2009), this article provides a first-hand account of "doing time" on the streets of California, behind the bars of the California Department of Corrections, and later within the halls of community college. The article is unconventional in that it is autobiographical and intentionally breaks free from the veneer of "objectivity" that characterizes much of conventional criminology. As anyone who has served time in the prison knows, there are no "objective" observers within the prison industrial complex. Everyone, from guards to convicts to researchers, has their own particular standpoint. Far too often, researchers hide behind the illusion of "objectivity" but lack a solid understanding of the lives of the people who have served time behind bars. They have never felt the human degradation that comes with incarceration: the endless strip searches, the brutal monotony, and the continual physical and mental abuse. As Ross and Richards lament, "there is something wrong when criminology/criminal justice research is...conducted by academics or consultants who have had minimal contact with the criminal justice system, or by former employees of the law enforcement establishment (Ross and Richards 2003:1). …