What is Convict criminology?

 Rod Earle, Senior Lecturer in Youth Justice, The Open University

‘In order to explain a cultural product it is necessary to know it. And to know it, in matters of thought and emotion, is to have experienced it.’ Bronislaw Malinowski, Anthropologist, 1884-1942

Rod Earle

Imprisonment is much studied by criminologists, but rarely experienced directly. As the study of crime has grown in recent years, prison officers, police officers, probation staff and social workers have contributed positively to the discipline of criminology, and helped to swell its ranks. Many people from these professional backgrounds have successfully made the transition to careers in criminology. You might say that they have taken to it like ducks to water. More recently, there are signs that something else is possible, something new: ex-convicts are making their way into criminology.

How does an ex-convict study crime and punishment and make sense of their personal experience? What research questions does an ex-convict have about prisons, punishment and rehabilitation? Do they teach criminology differently? Do they understand prison life better or have special insights into issues of crime and punishment by virtue of their experience? These are the questions that drive something that has come to be known as convict criminology: the study of criminology by those who have first-hand experience of imprisonment.

Convict criminology perspectives are currently dominated by US experience and publications. These emerged from the United States in the late 1990s through a group of academics, and an organisation, Convict Criminology, that supports and encourages prisoners and ex-prisoners who are interested in studying criminology. Academics without experiences of imprisonment helped to get the US Convict Criminology group started and remain welcome because they help those with prison experience and less conventional academic backgrounds to develop their academic skills and analysis, complete their studies and secure academic positions.

Part of what fueled the growth of US convict criminology was the enormous expansion of the US prison population from the 1970s onwards. The reasons for this growth are complex, and patterns of growth vary from state to state but the overall upward trend has been relentless. Moreover, if you are a black person in the USA you are seven times more likely to be sent to prison than if you are a white person. In the UK there are three young African Caribbean men in prison for every one at a Russell Group university and the rate of disproportionality in prison populations is actually greater than in the USA, though the scale is much smaller.

The fact that most convict criminologists are white men is not a random accident, and the way the two institutions, prison and university, operate at the bottom and top of the social hierarchy are open questions ripe for analysis. This analysis needs to be explicitly gendered and focus on the intersectional dynamics of masculinity, class, race and ethnicity. Women’s routes into, out of, and through prison vary significantly from men’s. When more than 90% of prison populations are composed of men, the available population of formerly imprisoned women is inevitably considerably smaller. As a result their opportunities to contribute to convict criminology are fewer and further between. While convict criminology is composed mostly of white men, it can benefit from an engagement with critical race theory to examine how ‘whiteness’ intersects with other aspects of biography, criminology and prison experience. This will help it to avoid ‘speaking for others’ and generalising experiences that are specifically conditioned by gender, ethnicity and class. In doing so, convict criminology can fashion distinctive critical contributions to criminology that unsettle and expose the ways in which universities reproduce privilege and hierarchy while prisons foster disadvantage and marginality.

Convict criminologists draw inspiration from C Wright Mills classic text The Sociological Imagination. Mills argued that linking aspects of personal biography to social structures and history was the core business of social science. For Mills the special craft of sociology rested on the insight that ‘personal troubles cannot be solved as mere troubles, but must be understood in terms of public issues’. By bringing together people with direct experience of imprisonment and criminological expertise, convict criminology tries to expand the criminological imagination. We may not know best, but we know prison well, and in ways other criminologists do not, and cannot know it – from experience. In the UK these experiences and expertise have not yet been brought together in any systematic way to examine if and how they can help to re-conceptualise various aspects of penal policy and how they can contribute to criminological theorisation. My forthcoming book, Convict Criminology – Inside and Out (Policy Press 2016) makes a start and develops my own case and perspectives, but the potential for convict criminologists to contribute more collaborative and distinctive insider perspectives is under-developed.

My experience is restricted to three months incarceration and 16 months of research fieldwork, spread over three English prisons, two of them separated from the first by over 100 miles and more than 30 years. For as long as I have worked around the criminal justice system and criminology, having personal experience of imprisonment has troubled me, albeit in a low-key kind of way. I didn’t realise how much I would appreciate working through these private troubles by connecting them to the public issues that I have found so compelling in criminology: issues of social justice, ideas about freedom, the problem of men, the role of law, the possibilities of social order and the significance of history. I am still troubled that I risk claiming too much for my very brief experience of imprisonment.  I’ve now spent more hours in prison as a researcher or a guest than I have as a prisoner. But there are two kinds of time inside and they do, I think, in the end, make a difference to anyone approaching the prison again as a scholar, and particularly as a criminologist.

Something of this difference resides in a remark I recall reading from a former Chief Inspector of Prisons in the UK. Reflecting, in a newspaper article, on his work revealing and reforming the way prisons operate, he noted that for all the good reform does, it was ever the case that prison ‘sits on a road that leads ultimately to the concentration camp.’ ‘Society’, he said, ‘neglects this awkward fact at its peril’. It is something, an immanent truth rather than an awkward fact, that prisoners sense more intuitively than most. As a result, convict criminologists, ex-prisoners writing sociologically about their experience, the institution of prison and the way society works around crime and punishment, may have something to enrich criminology. In anthropology Malinowski found a craft for more fully appreciating our ways of being human.  I think convict criminology develops this anthropological potential. It can provide evidence that prisons demonstrate the ways we fail.

For more information about convict criminology see the website: http://www.convictcriminology.org/

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