Building on Positive Convictions

Dr Rod Earle
Open University

The Research Idea

My proposal focuses on the perspectives of men who have been imprisoned and gone on to become criminologists. It challenges conventional disciplinary boundaries and is both radical and innovative in foregrounding the perspectives of the small number of academics who can combine first hand experiences of imprisonment with theorisation of crime and punishment – convict criminologists. It asks whether these unusual combinations of prison experience and criminology can tell us something new about the role of imprisonment in society, the lives of prisoners (and academics), the experience of imprisonment and the prospects of rehabilitation. Historically, as criminology has grown, police officers, probation staff, social workers and prison officers have contributed positively to the discipline, and benefited from studying it. People from these professional backgrounds have successfully made the transition to careers in criminology, but recently something else has happened; ex-convicts are making the journey 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? How do they teach criminology differently? Do they research prison and prisoners differently? Ethnographic pioneer Bronislaw Malinowski sums up the epistemological thesis of the proposal: ‘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.’ Imprisonment is much studied by criminologists, but rarely experienced directly. This research changes that.


Convict criminology perspectives are dominated by US experience and publications. Convict Criminology as an organisation emerged from the United States in the late 1990s, coinciding with the enormous growth of the US prison population. It has established a presence in US criminology but the approach has only just begun to become viable in the UK. I have organised panels at the each of the annual meetings of the British Society of Criminology since 2010. These have helped establish a loose network of UK convict criminology scholars but there is almost no UK based convict criminology literature, and none that is empirically informed and can extend the perspective and potential from singular, reflexive case studies. My forthcoming book, Convict Criminology – Inside and Out (Policy Press 2016) develops my own case and perspectives but the potential for convict criminologists to contribute more collaborative and distinctive insider experiential perspectives are under-developed. Most UK convict criminologists are recently appointed, or still in the process of completing their doctoral studies. Among the small number of qualifying criminologists (formerly imprisoned, post-graduate in criminology or related discipline) some prefer discretion rather than disclosure. With few opportunities to meet and exchange or develop perspectives, convict criminology’s potential remains limited. Possibilities for collaboration are heavily constrained by lack of resources and opportunity. The proposal is designed to remedy these limitations and secure resources to establish a structure and mechanism for more substantial collaboration.

The Focus

‘The Rich Get Richer, The Poor Get Prison’ is a simplistic contraction that nonetheless points analysis in helpful directions. Prison worlds are growing, sucking resources out of social welfare as crude criminal justice solutions to complex social problems displace efforts for more humane approaches. Prison is a profoundly misunderstood institution but enjoys a central position in popular beliefs about law and order, crime and punishment. UK prison populations stand at record levels, despite consistent and persistent falls in most forms of recorded crime. Prison sentences are getting longer. Prison populations don’t reflect the demography of the general population – they are predominantly men, from poor communities and disproportionately from minority ethnic groups. My research proposal convenes a small and unique group of people with direct experience of imprisonment and criminological expertise. Though they may not know best, they know prison well enough, and in ways other criminologists do not, and cannot know it – from the inside. These experiences and expertise have not yet been brought together to examine if and how they can help to re-conceptualise various aspects of penal policy and how they can contribute to criminological theorisation. The group is diversely qualified in terms of disciplinary focus, age and penal experience. All seven are known to me personally and are studying or teaching in universities in London, the north and the east. Bringing these people with their unique perspectives together, through a series of interviews and workshops, offers unique opportunities to re-shape the boundaries of penal scholarship.

Theoretical Novelty

The research proposal draws 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. My proposal animates this approach in one of the most vigorous branches of social science – criminology. As more students are drawn to study criminology, this approach is vitally important. By providing new empirical resources that draw on the experience of other convict criminologists in the UK, this small project would be the first structured exploration of convict criminology perspectives in the UK; the first attempt to gather data and convene a research study that draws from the unique pool of relevant scholarly experience that has emerged in recent years. Unique personal contact and good relations have been established with this small number of criminologists that will allow this study to be completed. Because the sample is likely to consist entirely of men, the analysis will be gendered and focus explicitly and specifically on the intersectional dynamics of masculinity, class, race and ethnicity. Prison populations include disproportionately large numbers of black men, while the reverse is true of universities. The proposed sample is composed of white men, and the analysis will engage positively with critical race theory to examine how ‘whiteness’ intersects with other aspects of biography, criminology and prison experience. Differing social class backgrounds are also explicitly present in the sample, and will offer valuable and unusual resources for reflexive intersectional analysis.


The handful of scholars that comprise the research sample have completed, or are in the final stages, of doctoral research that draw, with varying degrees of emphasis, from psychology, sociology and criminology. They are comprised of men whose experience of penal confinement varies from a period of months, to years and decades. Interviews will be recorded using an interview topic guide covering four common themes to facilitate the subsequent analysis. These are concerned with experience and perspectives on: prison life and crime; academic life and teaching; convict criminology; and future prospects.
Interviews will be professionally transcribed and depending on discussion within the group, analysis and interpretation will be collective, distributed between the group or conducted solely by the P.I. At this stage the P.I. will have the capacity to complete this, but if other capacity is available within the group, it may be distributed. Consent will be sought on the basis of a closed research group involving the P.I. and the respondents themselves. This will establish the boundaries of confidentiality and agree the protocols over disclosure, dissemination and discussion of criminal convictions.
Short workshop papers will surface connections between PhD studies and convict criminology perspectives. The workshop is structured to focus on this academic gateway (the PhD) to establish the extent of shared and divergent disciplinary experiences, the profile of personal biography, and specific experiences of crime and punishment, in shaping career trajectories and epistemological perspectives.
Findings will be written up for publication, individually and/or collectively.

Work Plan

Feb – May 2016 – Co-working Convict Criminology interviews: Visit individual members of the group and record semi-structured co-interviews (6-7 individuals) conducted by the PI. Five excursions are costed to complete the planned interviews by Spring 2016.

May 2016 – Convict Criminology Workshop , Milton Keynes/London OU (circa 10 people)
Funding for up to 10 participants is sought to include some supportive non-convict academics for additional academic perspective.
Provisional structure:
Morning session: 10.30 – 1pm
PhD study and Convict Criminology perspectives
X 5 perspectives/presenters, 30 mins each. Papers developed according to personal priorities, interests and experience
Afternoon: 2pm – 4pm
Developing potentials: issues, obstacles, objectives
The role of conferences/conference papers
Reflexivity – for and against?
Organisation, structure and maintenance of the network
Disclosure and publicity
Mentoring and supporting prisoner learners, ex-prisoner learners
Overnight accommodation will allow for the social engagement that sustains network development. From this workshop a panel will be presented at the British Society of Criminology Annual Meeting in July (Output 1). From the interviews and workshops, a paper will be submitted to the British Journal of Criminology (Output 2)and a book proposal for an edited collection of convict criminology (Output 3). Palgrave Press have indicated provisional support for such a volume.


The principal outcome will be a more coherent and fully developed set of multidisciplinary perspectives around convict criminology experiences in the UK. This will lay the foundations for several publications. Palgrave Press have expressed commitment to an edited collection of Convict Criminology that draws from the emerging group of UK scholars. The two house journals of British criminology, The British Journal of Criminology and Criminology and Criminal Justice have yet to receive and publish an article on convict criminology, and the research project provides the potential to remedy this deficit. The generation of original empirical resources for such an article or articles from this research study greatly increase the chances of success. The profile and potential of convict criminology in the UK will be substantially enhanced, the network of contributing scholars will be consolidated and original empirical resources developed.
Panels and papers at the British Society of Criminology, the European Society of Criminology, The European Group for The Study of Deviance and Social Control and the American Society of Criminology will be enriched by contributions from participants in the study.
By spending time on focused academic activity, the small group of convict criminology scholars that has been established will be strengthened and equipped with resources to develop the field. Publishing projects will reinforce and enhance writing skills and foster the distinctive expressive potentials of convict criminology, giving voice to new academic perspectives from inside the experience of imprisonment.