When Stephen C. Richards, a criminology professor, steps up to the rostrum on the first day of his sociology of corrections classes at Northern Kentucky University, he usually begins his lecture with a confession and a promise.
“I’m an ex-con,” Mr. Richards, who served nine years in federal prison for selling marijuana, tells his students. “I’m going to tell some stories and use some profane language. You’ll read books that you might not read in other classes. And by the end of the semester, you’re going to know more about prisons than you ever imagined.”
With convictions ranging from selling heroin to armed robbery and even murder, they have tenure-track positions at public universities, attend academic conferences and act as mentors to current convicts who hope some day to join their ranks.
While there have long been isolated ex-convicts keeping a low profile in academia — last month a Pennsylvania State University education professor named Paul Krueger resigned when the university discovered he had spent 12 years in prison after pleading guilty in 1965 to a triple murder — these criminologists are the first group of ex-convict professors to organize into a scholarly movement.
“What’s different about the convict criminologists is that they publicly proclaim their ex-offender status,” said Francis T. Cullen, a criminal justice professor at the University of Cincinnati. “And they’re consciously coming together and arguing that if you systematize their experience, you can come up with a new criminology.”
The movement has sparked controversy, not so much because of its members’ backgrounds as because of their ideas, which were set forth in a manifesto of sorts published this year, “Convict Criminology,” which Mr. Richards edited along with Jeffrey Ian Ross, a professor of criminology at the University of Baltimore.
The book’s thesis is that having spent time in jail, convict criminologists have a better understanding of the criminal justice system than professors who have studied prison from the comfort of their offices. The former inmates engage in research to support their argument that incarceration is overused in the United States — which has a prison population of 2.2 million — and that prison is needlessly dehumanizing.
“Ex-cons make good criminology professors because we know so much about the system,” Mr. Richards said. “There are academics who feel somewhat threatened because we’re challenging their expertise. Very few venture into prisons, and they never really get it.”
The debate about firsthand experience echoes others that have roiled the academy about who is best suited to teach women’s studies, Jewish studies and black studies, as well as less contentious discussions about whether published novelists make the best writing teachers, former corporate executives make the best business professors and so on.
There are around a dozen ex-convict criminology professors around the country; another dozen in the late stages of their graduate school work, soon to become junior faculty members; and still others studying for degrees in prison. Most say they are motivated toward academia by a combination of idealism and practicality: deeply affected by the experience of prison, they share an urge to improve conditions for fellow inmates. And because getting jobs in the private sector is difficult for those with felonies on their records, academia offers at least the chance of a career.
“A lot of convicts want to make use of their time and come out better prepared,” said John Irwin, a professor of criminology at San Francisco State University who spent five years in prison for armed robbery. “This couples with the fact that you can never get away from your prison experience.”