From Fledgling Network to the Creation of an Official Division of the American Society of Criminology: The Growth of Convict Criminology 2.0.

AuthorRoss, Jeffrey Ian

Over the last decade, the Convict Criminology (CC) network has gone through a handful of significant changes. These developments culminated in the establishment of the official Division of Convict Criminology (DCC) as part of the American Society of Criminology (ASC). This article reviews the critical challenges that prompted the network to become a division of ASC. This includes, but is not limited to, the death of some of our closest allies, the decline in the health and commitment of some of the original founders, the emergence of other organizations that seemingly provided similar benefits, and generational changes and other external pressures.


After the publication of Convict Criminology (Ross & Richards 2003), many of its ideas were advanced by the Convict Criminology (CC) network in peer-reviewed journal articles, chapters in scholarly books, and entries in encyclopedias, while some of them were slowly accepted by the mainstream academic fields of criminology and criminal justice.

However, starting around 2010, CC started to falter. After summarizing the first fifteen years of CC, including its founding history, scholarship, and place within a formal theory of the discipline, Richards (2013, 384) indicated that CC was struggling: "... our ranks of ex-convict professors remain thin." In another article that discussed the state of CC at 22 years, Tietjen (2019) summarized the founding history of the discipline, explained the multiple pathways that people take to discover CC, and discussed the growing diversity of membership. This article also further contributed to the theoretical development of CC, which supports the potential and value of the lived experience within research, demonstrating how the mentorship networks of CC work in a synergistic manner by pulling together fragmented knowledge into new understandings of criminological dynamics. (1) Tietjen (2019, 110) also identified the development of some important ideological debates within CC:

over 20 years later, there is discussion within CC circles that cultural shifts within society and criminal justice have altered how the world perceives the term, "convict," and many people find the term offensive, potentially deterring some [formerly incarcerated] students and professors from affiliating with the CC field. This is an ongoing discussion that has the potential to reshape CC's impact on justice reform and reach a wider spectrum of justice-impacted people. Cultural shifts in societal perceptions of criminal justice have occurred over the more than two decades since CC formed. Reform and rehabilitation have become more popular, while mass incarceration and, in some circles, the tough on crime mentality of the 1980s and 1990s has fallen out of favor (e.g., Kirk & Wakefield 2018, Matthews 2017). While struggling with internal concerns and continuing to work on many issues vital to furthering equality for system-contacted people, CC did not widen its focus to the more humanistic social perceptions of criminal justice in the current era. Thus, not accounting for such cultural shifts potentially hampered the progressive development of the discipline. (2)

Most of the scholarship on CC has reviewed the network's accomplishments (e.g. Jones et al. 2009), but has not really examined the organizational challenges this group experienced. In short, if groups, regardless oftype,want to sustain themselves, they need to establish mechanisms to enable their continuation and to change and adapt to new circumstances. It would be naive to assume that any organization could maintain itself in an insulated manner, but because of the academic space that CC occupied (i.e., frequent meetings at ASC conferences, international seminars, academic mentorships, scholarly publications, universities where CC scholars are employed), there were real-world, necessary tasks that needed to be accomplished.

The group has been the focus of some academic critiques (e.g., Larsen & Piche 2012, Newbold & Ross 2013), including Belknap (2015), who stated in an American Society of Criminology presidential address (and accompanying Criminology article) that CC had ignored many formerly incarcerated people and was not doing enough to promote diversity and inclusion within its ranks. A2016 special issue of the journal Critical Criminology responded to these criticisms, arguing that CC's struggles over the decades had been much more complex than was commonly understood.

For example, Ross et al. (2016) pointed out that CC had long attempted to be inclusive, while at the same time respecting and protecting the identities of people who were formerly incarcerated. Possessing the stigmatized identity of a felony conviction is not an identity that everyone is comfortable sharing with the world, and in many cases, disclosing this identity would have harmed the careers of many of CC's members who chose to remain anonymous. Consequently, actively recruiting and thus exposing people with a legal conviction would not have been appropriate. These writers also highlighted how CC has always welcomed and included people, regardless of criminal justice background, and at many points, people without any criminal record comprised close to 50 percent of CC's members. (3) Through tracking participation in CC sessions at the American Society of Criminology, Ross et al. (2016) also demonstrated that international, minority, and female representation in CC increased from 1999 through 2015. Female and minority representations both more than doubled during this time period. Needless to say these criticisms of CC further motivated the group to redouble their efforts to support both the active participation of women and broaden the diversity of people interested in CC activities.

Besides the previously mentioned reasons, why else did CC seem to falter? Four interrelated things happened: a handful of close allies passed away, the health and commitment of some of the original founders declined, other organizations seemed (on a superficial basis) to provide some of the same benefits as CC, and a strong leadership structure had not yet been established. So what specifically happened?

Some Convict Criminology Colleagues Died

During the past fourteen years, several of Convict Criminology's closest collaborators and supporters passed away. In 2009, after a long battle with cancer, Thomas Bernard, a professor of sociology and criminology at Pennsylvania State University, passed away (see Arrigo & Bernard 1997, Bernard 1990, Bernard & Snipes 1996). He had acted as a mentor to a number of educated convicts and excons including K.C. Carceral (2003, 2005). Shortly thereafter, in 2010,John Irwin (1970, 1980, 1985, 2005, 2009), a former bank robber, professor, and intellectual mentor to CC died (see also Richards et al. 2010). This was followed in 2015 with the death of G. David Curry, an excon scholar from the University of Missouri who came late to the group (see Ball & Curry 1995, Curry & Spergel 1988, Curry et al. 2003). CC also had a number of collaborators and allies behind bars who passed away. These included Victor Hassine (1996/2011) in 2008, and Jon Marc Taylor (2009) in 2016. (4) Their loss was felt not only in CC circles, but among criminology and criminal justice scholars as well as prison activists.

Some Convict Criminology Allies Were Released from Custody and Took Different Paths

CC members frequently receive letters from individuals who are behind bars. The members correspond with the writers, sometimes do research with them, and assist them to the best of their ability in getting into bachelor's, master's, or PhD programs upon release (Ross 2019, Tewksbury & Ross 2019). Some of the formerly incarcerated (Ross et al. 2015a), despite their academic promise, decided for one reason or another to take paths outside academia. For example, one individual concluded that despite earning a PhD behind bars from a diploma mill (Ross et al. 2015b) and publishing two respectable books, finding an academic job was too difficult. Although finding suitable employment after a criminal conviction and time spent incarcerated has never been easy (e.g., Kling 2006), he needed to put food on the table and decided to become an owner-operator as a for-hire truck driver instead. Another individual, who worked with a couple of us and managed to publish three scholarly, peer-reviewed articles, determined, after exiting the Federal Bureau of Prisons (FBOP), not to pursue a master's degree. This was also true for a very intelligent excon, who after completing a master's degree enrolled in a PhD program at a well-respected state university, but never completed the degree requirements.

In the case of another relatively prolific young scholar, who earned a PhD from a top-ranked criminal justice program, a sex offense from his young adult years came with a lifelong punishment of placement on the sex-offender registry, a penalty that continuously frustrated his efforts to secure appropriate academic positions. Just like the general population, a number of articulate excons who gravitate toward CC do not gain admission to the PhD programs of their choice. They either discover that academia is not very accepting of them (Ross et al. 2011, Tietjen & Ravish 2021), they lose interest in post-baccalaureate higher education, and/or they find better paying jobs elsewhere. The struggle to find and secure a permanent and well-paying job in academia, when other less competitive and better paying professions exist, is a reality that many excons pursuing PhDs learn upon their release. Alternatively, there are some individuals who never really intend to complete a university degree but understand outwardly adopting the posture of pursuing an academic degree as playing well with relatives, friends, parole boards, and parole officers.

The Health of Some of the Original Convict Criminology Founders Declined

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