Former inmates re-invent themselves as criminologists

After leaving prison, some ex-convicts are entering academia, and using their intimate knowledge of life in jail to reshape the way we think about crime and punishment.
After leaving prison, some ex-convicts are becoming academics themselves, joining a growing convict criminology group, with members all around the globe. (Shutterstock)
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In 1988, a group of Canadians founded the Journal of Prisoners on Prisons.

They were concerned that the public debate over prisons was missing a crucial perspective: the voices of prisoners themselves.

The journal's central premise is that prisoners are not just research subjects, to be analyzed at a distance by academics ensconced in the ivory tower. They can write with authority about their own experiences.

After leaving prison, some ex-convicts are becoming academics themselves. There is a growing convict criminology group, which has members in countries around the world.

The Sunday Edition host Michael Enright spoke with three ex-convict criminologists at different stages of their careers.

From prison to academia

Stephen Richards spent nine years in prison for conspiracy to distribute marijuana, and is now professor emeritus of criminology at the University of Wisconsin at Oshkosh.

He was arrested while he was a college student, and finished his degree by correspondence while in U.S. federal prison. After he was released from prison, he went directly to graduate school and completed a Master's degree and a PhD.

"Five years out of prison, I was a professor, and I became one of the first convict criminology professors," he says.

Richards's experiences in jail made him want to work to fix the system once he got out.

"Part of being a convict criminologist is realizing that you know something that most academics in the social sciences don't know. You've got inside information about what's wrong with the criminal justice system — literally, inside. You know what a failure the system is, and you want to do something about it," he says.

Jarrod Shook, who spent seven years in prison, says former inmates who become criminologists have a unique opportunity to challenge dominant stereotypes about prisoners.

Jarrod Shook has spent a total of seven years in prison, mostly for robbery offences. He earned a sociology degree from Laurentian University while in prison, and is working toward a bachelor's degree in criminology at the University of Ottawa.

He says studying sociology made him view his fellow inmates in a new light.

"Before, you might have looked at that person the same way the state might: Hey, that guy broke the law. He's an individual moral failure. He's done something wrong, he deserves to be punished," he says. "But now you see the sociological side of things. You see how that person's life may have been shaped by economic forces, political forces."

Rachel Fayter served three and a half years in prison on drug trafficking charges. She was released 9 months ago, and plans to begin a PhD in criminology at the University of Ottawa this fall. She completed a bachelor's degree and a Master's degree in psychology before her time in prison.

She hopes to use her academic work to highlight the gap between the values prison authorities espouse, and what prisoners actually experience.

Rachel Fayter served three and a half years at Grand Valley. She says the experience made her immediately critical of the correctional system and its stated values.
"At Grand Valley Institution in Kitchener, where I was incarcerated, they had a poster on the wall that says that Correctional Services Canada is based on five principles — this is for women's prisons, specifically. These principles are: empowerment, meaningful and responsible choices, respect and dignity, a supportive environment, and shared responsible," she says.

"My experience and every other woman that I was incarcerated with [was not of] a supportive environment or empowering or respect and anything like that. So I was immediately critical of the system."

The birth of the convict criminology movement

Richards was one of the early members of a convict criminology group that was founded in 1997, and now has members in countries around the world.

"There were a handful of people who were convicted felons, who had done prison time and were now professors. In 1997, maybe 8 or 10 people. I literally called up everybody and talked to them. Most of them were still hiding in the closet. They weren't out in the open, because of the stigma in academia," he says.

Convict criminologists say much of the public debate over prisons is missing the voices of prisoners themselves. (Getty Images)
"Many of them had been hired in the 1970s, 1980s, when there were no criminal background checks. By the 1990s, at least in the United States, they were doing criminal background checks at every state university in the country. This now affects people like Jarrod and Rachel."

Richards now mentors ex-convict students and helps them find jobs after they graduate.

Part of being a convict criminologist is realizing that you know something that most academics in the social sciences don't know. You've got inside information about what's wrong with the criminal justice system — literally, inside.- Stephen Richards

Applying for jobs as an ex-convict

Fayter says the stigma attached to having a criminal record can make searching for any kind of employment challenging.

"I'm concerned I'm going to be spending four years doing my PhD and having a trouble getting a job," she says.

After she was released from prison, she struggled to find a minimum wage, part-time job.

"I have a master's degree, and I have over 15 years of social services experience. I've applied to at least 70 or 80 places," she says. "It's not just social service places. Retail establishments, fast food places, bookstores, grocery stores — they all do criminal record checks these days."

While she waits to begin her PhD, she is now working part-time at a Mexican fast food restaurant by day and stocking shelves at a grocery store by night.

Studying sociology helps show how economic or political forces might have shaped a prisoner's life choices, says Jarrod Shook. (Peter Macdiarmid/Getty Images)

Changing perceptions

Shook says former inmates who become criminologists have a unique opportunity to change the way society views prisoners.

"The work that we're doing ... challenges this dominant stereotype that everyone in prison is this aggressive, dangerous, violent individual who needs to be separated from society," he says.

"It takes time. We're working against politics, we're working against media that has manufactured ideas about who prisoners are and what they represent. So it's a continual project."

He says he's aware of the privilege he has now that he's out of jail and in academia, and he wants to use that to open doors for other former inmates.

"There are so many people inside right now who deserve the exact same opportunity that I have, to be on the outside and have a meaningful, purposeful life," Shook says.

"So my goal, if I could call prisoners my constituents … is to try to improve things so other people can have the same opportunities — whether they want to be academics or they want to be mechanics, or whatever they want to choose to do with their lives."

Click 'listen' above to hear the full panel.

Follow this link for the latest volume of the Journal of Prisoners on Prison, which is co-edited by Jarrod Shook and includes an article by Rachel Fayter.