Two professors are trying to revolutionize the study of crime by bringing their own experiences behind bars to bear. And they’re finding a following among prisoners.
Ryan K. Ramnarace got out of a Wisconsin prison last fall after serving 14 years for a cocaine conspiracy charge. Upon his release, he immediately enrolled in college at the University of Wisconsin to study criminology of all things.
It was through a sociology professor who taught classes at Federal Correctional Facility, Oxford that Ramnarace was introduced to the work of Dr. Stephen Richards and Jeffrey Ian Ross, authors of Convict Criminology. The book and their field of study that goes by the same name challenges the way that crime and correctional problems are traditionally approached and discussed by policymakers, politicians, and researchers in the field of criminology.
“I read it three times and it really inspired me,” Ramnarace told The Daily Beast. “The idea is that an ex-convict who is more familiar with the system, because he’s done time at the juvenile, state, or federal level, understands the machinery of the criminal justice system better than people who’ve never done time.”
Ramnarace said he wants to become a professor and not only teach criminology, but use his Ph.D. to conduct studies to reform the criminal justice system.
Convict criminology grew out of the fact that meaningful input from convicts and ex-convicts was ignored in the policies, practices, and research on corrections and criminal justice. Richards and Ross felt that educated convicts and ex-convicts had a lot to contribute, namely how crime is defined, how prisons aren’t preparing returning citizens for the world, and how the lack of meaningful programs in prison contribute to recidivism.
“We started convict criminology—we being important because it was a group of us—out of frustration with the academic understanding of crime and its control,” Richards, who served almost a decade in the federal system for a marijuana conspiracy in the 1980s and is now a criminology professor at the University of Wisconsin, told The Daily Beast. “Most of the academic criminologists had very little true understanding of what happened to people when they are arrested and processed through the criminal justice system.”
Richards said when he went to graduate school after his release from prison, he was forced to read journal articles from textbooks that were naively written by people who had Ph.D.’s, but who really didn’t understand what they were writing about. After serving nine years in federal prison and being imprisoned on eight different compounds from maximum security to minimum security, Richards had a fairly good idea of what prison was like, and what he was reading in the academic journals just wasn’t correlating with what he’d experienced.
“When I came out of prison and I went to grad school I would be reading some academic article about prison and I just had to laugh at how silly it was,” he said. “Convict criminology to me is all about making it real. The only people that can make it real are prisoners or former prisoners that know what it is to do prison time. You can’t leave it up to reporters and academics who really have no clue to what it’s like to be locked up doing years at a time.”
To be sure though, it’s not enough to go to prison to become an expert.
“Simply spending time behind bars, nor being in possession of a high school diploma and/or a bachelor’s degree is not sufficient to be considered a ‘convict criminologist,’” Ross, who teaches at the University of Baltimore, said. “One of the criteria is possession of a Ph.D. and preferably in criminology/criminal justice or a related field. This advanced training should give the person the tools to critically analyze corrections and the criminal justice system.”
The main difference between convict criminology and the regular field is how much they rely on statistics.
“Disproportionately from the 1960s to about 2000 the majority of academic research on prisons was quantitative,” Ross said. “This approach minimizes the subtle but important information that firsthand and qualitative research can produce. After completing my doctorate, I met individuals who had both done time and had a doctorate. I found that many of them had a more realistic understanding of jails, prisons, and correctional facilities, than some of the scholarship I had read, and recognized that they could make a major contribution to the literature.”
Ross thinks it would be extremely appropriate for the incoming administration to listen to voices like convicts.
“Although most convicts and ex-convicts have complaints about jails, prisons, and correctional facilities, not all of them have the benefit of a master’s and doctorate,” he said. “A doctorate provides an individual with the tools to critically analyze subject matter.”
Not just that, but statistics show that when prisoners have access to higher education, take college classes, and earn degrees they are less likely to recidivate and return to prison.
“For me it was an opportunity to actually embrace who I was,” Ramnarace said. “Not hide from my past or hide from the fact that I’ve been in prison. I could legitimate myself through my education and I could work for criminal justice reform that way. For me this was like a perfect opportunity. If you want to be successful in school you have to have a plan. Coming from a background of being in prison for so long I was already very regimented and very structured. I just moved from one institution (correctional) to another institution (educational).”
Currently we have a system that is set up to arrest, convict and incarcerate people for non-violent drug offenses. As an uncertain future on the criminal justice front looms, the convict criminologists stick to what they know: what it’s like to be in prison and what’s needed to keep people out.