Criminology to challenge the status quo

(This article was originally published on Transforming Society April 15, 2024).

Numerous scholarly books and texts designed for classroom use about the field of corrections have been researched, written and published. The overall tenor of these works, however, is conservative, emphasising a management perspective, and outlining the nuts and bolts of how prisons work, the job functions of correctional workers, conditions inside correctional facilities, the different types of inmates, etc.

There is an underlying logic to this instructional content. To begin with, corrections is typically taught in community colleges and universities as part of a larger curriculum in Criminology and Criminal Justice. Putting pure interest aside, students who take classes in this field are typically either current or prospective criminal justice practitioners. They believe that knowing about jails, prisons, inmates, policies, etc. might assist them in their jobs, enable them to secure work in this subfield, or help them to decide if they want a career as a correctional worker or administrator. But this approach to pedagogy is usually system affirming, one that seeks to reinforce rather than change the status quo.

Criminologists, however, should avoid this perspective to the subject. We should always strive to improve the criminal justice system, to apply the knowledge we have accumulated, to improve working conditions, and to increase the likelihood that incarcerated people re-enter society rehabilitated. Few of the books on jails and prisons, however, approach the subject in a critical manner.

That being said, approximately three decades ago, a new academic perspective emerged – one that prioritised the voices of incarcerated and formerly incarcerated individuals. Convict Criminology was born not only to share the lived experience insights of this often ignored or marginalised group, but also to assist them in earning doctoral degrees and finding their rightful place in academia.

In addition to its noble goals, Convict Criminology has also encompassed strong mentoring, teaching, activist and public policy components.

Many individuals who have been exposed to and/or adopted the Convict Criminology approach have assisted numerous inmates and formerly incarcerated people. These men and women, either when they are behind bars or released, find it liberating, recognise that in terms of the knowledge they have accumulated (between the time of their initial arrest to that of release), their lived experience might advance the scholarly field of corrections, criminology and criminal justice.

Over the years, a significant amount of scholarship on Convict Criminology has been published, including peer-reviewed articles, chapters and books. It was only a matter of time before a comprehensive text consolidating and interpreting the existing literature on Convict Criminology was available.

Introduction to Convict Criminology traces the history of Convict Criminology and its numerous accomplishments. It reviews the challenges of and solutions to teaching convicts and formerly incarcerated individuals, mentoring convicts and formerly incarcerated students; activism and public policy work; and the future of Convict Criminology.

Convict Criminology is not only a critical approach to the study of corrections, criminology and criminal justice, but it has also given hope to numerous men and women. One must keep in mind that the whole Convict Criminology approach is not simply for people who are convicts or ex-convicts, but also for people interested in the Convict Criminology praxis who have had contact or been involved with, or impacted by, the criminal justice system. Although they may not have been incarcerated, they may have been arrested, charged but not convicted of a criminal offence, may have a criminal record but did not serve time, or they may have a loved one who was incarcerated.

Convict Criminology could not have achieved so much without the support of numerous individuals committed to its goals. And in many respects this book is a result of these efforts.

Jeffrey Ian Ross is Professor in the School of Criminal Justice and Research Fellow with the Center for International and Comparative Law and the Schaefer Center for Public Policy at the University of Baltimore.

Introduction to Convict Criminology By Jeffrey Ian Ross is available on the Bristol University Press website. Order the book here for £27.99.

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Image: Gwénaëlle Moalic Lorre