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In most social policy systems, having experience in the system is held to be an advantage for those who study it. In some fields, such as medicine, virtually all those who teach are also practitioners. In other fields, such as education or law, professors may often be people with relatively little direct experience in the system – a situation which is often the subject of controversy. But in all these systems it is relatively rare for someone to become a professor and researcher whose primary experience was as a client of the system. And in criminal justice there is the added challenge that is very hard to study prison from the inside, as access for research is severely restricted.
It is, then, fascinating and encouraging that there is a movement in criminology around people with experience as prisoners becoming professors. This effort is known as ‘Convict Criminology’ and has now been active for more than 20 years.
Better understanding of the justice system
The rationale seems obvious. Who would have a better sense of what the criminal justice system is really like than those who had been incarcerated? In areas such as health or education, almost everyone has some experience of using the system, but criminal justice remains a black box to a huge part of the population that has no direct experience – although in the US particularly, quite a large segment of the adult population (estimated at 70 million people) has a criminal record. Even in Canada, with a far lower rate of arrest and imprisonment, the best estimate is that around 4 million adults – about one in eight – has a police or criminal record that can affect things such as employment, housing and travel.
What makes convict criminology particularly interesting, though, is the presence of people who have done time in prison as professors and researchers in the field. A very few such people were active in the 1990s, writing books and scholarly articles about crime and prison drawing on their personal experience. They coined the term ‘convict criminology’ and began mentoring others with jail experience who wanted to study in the field. People who had been through the system began to recognize that they could study it and contribute to public knowledge and policy. There are now enough such people that this past year the American Society of Criminology created a Division of Convict Criminology to provide an academic home.
US, UK and Canada
The US-based group describes itself as “students, researchers, and faculty members… that mentor formerly-incarcerated students and junior faculty, conduct relevant research, and advocate for progressive justice reform…”
A related organization exists in the United Kingdom. There is no official convict criminology movement in Canada, but at the University of Ottawa, Professor Justin Piché has created something similar, with a number of students doing graduate degrees after spending time in jail or prison. (In Canada jail is usually used to refer to provincial institutions while federal institutions, generally people sentenced to two or more years, are called prisons.)
While this seems a very welcome development, work by people in this movement shows clearly that it faces significant obstacles in academia. A recent article in Nature described the paths of 3 academics who had to overcome a criminal record to gain their positions. People with criminal records have difficulty at every step –being admitted as university students, receiving financial support for their studies, getting their work published, getting hired into academic positions, and receiving research grants. ‘Coming out’ as a person with a criminal record record is not a decision to be made lightly.
In this world, as in virtually every other aspect of society, having a criminal record makes it harder to achieve one’s goals. People clearly dedicated to doing something productive with their lives have additional and unnecessary obstacles placed in their way because of the deep stigma related to their past. The mentorship associated with convict criminology is precisely intended to help people deal with these obstacles, but it is equally important to try to reduce or remove the obstacles in the first place.
Towards better institutions
In this regard, convict criminology is like many other efforts by marginalized groups to participate more actively in the study and research that is used to define and shape their lives. These developments should be welcomed as ways to make our institutions and social practices more open and inclusive – and also more effective and just.