entered federal prison not as a convicted criminal,
but a prisoner of the drug war. I would do hard time
in maximum security for failure to cooperate with
federal authorities in the persecution and destruction
of others. As a result, I would lose a wife, son,
and home. I started college in 1969, and left in 1972
without a degree. I entered prison determined to somehow
complete that degree. Upon leaving prison I went to
graduate school. Today, I am an Associate Professor
of Sociology and Criminology.
Credit by Correspondence
I entered prison with 115 college credits towards
a Bachelors Degree in Sociology. Still needing
fifteen credits to graduate, I went to work in a UNICOR
(federal prison industries) cable factory, where we
constructed electric cable harnesses under contract
for the military. I worked my way up to Grade 1 clerk,
and as one of the highest paid prisoners in the facility,
made approximately $200 a month, including overtime.
I used my inmate pay to pay for college
courses by mail. Every month, after making my commissary
purchases (food, smokes, stamps, etc.), I would set
aside so much to pay for the next course. It took
me two years to compete five courses (15 credits),
and complete the degree requirements for the UW degree.
To my knowledge, I was the only prisoner that year
in the entire FBOP to complete a college degree.
Released from federal prison in 1987, I entered the
Masters Program at UW-Milwaukee. In 1989, upon completing
the MA., I entered the PhD Program in Sociology at
Iowa State University, graduating in 1992. Today,
I am an Associate Professor of Sociology and Criminology
at Northern Kentucky University.
a University Professor
It is a long way from Leavenworth to the ivory tower.
Earning a PhD was only the first step in becoming
a professor. I still needed to overcome the stigma
of a criminal record and learn to manage my identity.
If I had chosen an academic discipline other than
Criminology this may have been less of a problem.
Nevertheless, the experience I had with the criminal
justice system and prisons has provided a real life
education in these subjects that goes well beyond
the academic training available to most of my colleagues.
Unfortunately, some university faculty are threatened
by an ex-convict that knows how little they know about
the subjects they teach and research.
criminology and criminal justice faculty come from
sheltered backgrounds. They have little real world
knowledge of working class lives, let alone the perils
of poverty, or the struggles of convicts. Yes, they
have PhDs, and through many years of studying their
discipline they do acquire considerable insight into
why people do crime. Still, they never really get
it. Which is no surprise, considering they never bothered
to talk with convicts. Many academics that claim to
be prison scholars, and write books on the subject,
have spent precious little time inside of prisons,
and even then only on escorted tours.
wonder most of the prison literature reads like fairy
tales (this journal being one exception). Textbooks
talk about constitutional amendments, the Bill of
Rights, prisoners rights, prison programs, and
rehabilitation. Ideally prisoners should have these
protections and services. Unfortunately, most textbooks
paint a false picture of reality, and as such do a
disservice to students.
have learned that becoming a professor means I do
not have to suffer fools or foolish books. I have
no patience for social scientists that study their
subject from a safe distance. Fortunately, we have
a growing group of convict criminologists
that have the courage to do the science and tell
it like it is.
Today, even while working to fit in and play the professor
role, I enjoy my ex-con status. As one of the leaders
of the Convict Criminologists, a growing group of
ex-convict criminology faculty, I prefer the company
of my felonious friends who although they
have fancy college degrees have not forgotten from
where they came.
C. Richards, a former federal prisoner, is a FedCURE
Member and an Associate Professor of Sociology and
Criminology at Northern Kentucky University. He is
a Soros Senior Justice Fellow. Some of his recent
work includes Behind Bars: Surviving Prison
(Alpha) and Convict Criminology (Wadsworth)
with Jeffrey Ian Ross.
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