Convict criminology and the value of firsthand experience

Not everyone can teach from experience, especially when that experience requires spending time in maximum security prison.

Greg Newbold is a sociology professor at the University of Canterbury in New Zealand. He also did 7.5 years in prison for selling drugs. Newbold is a part of a research group called “convict criminology” which sees this firsthand experience as a valuable asset in understanding the criminal system. I spoke to him about his time in prison and convict criminology.

ResearchGate: How did this all start? How did you become a convict criminologist?

Greg Newbold: I went to prison in 1975 for selling drugs. I got 7.5 years. At that time, I was doing a MA at Auckland University. I was planning to do a PhD in the US but being busted in 1975 changed all that. When I finally got out in 1980, I won a scholarship and did a PhD on the history of the maximum security prison in New Zealand.

RG: When you were entering academia was your past considered an asset?

Newbold: Well there were positives and negatives. There was resistance at the university to employing someone who had served a long sentence for selling drugs. It ended up being an asset to me because I was employed to teach criminology. Most criminologists are armchair criminologists, getting their knowledge from textbooks and teaching from textbooks. Whereas I write my own textbooks, based on my own research and experience.

RG: You wrote a paper “Knocking on the Ivory Tower's Door” about the experience of ex-cons getting tenure track positions. What is that process like?

Newbold: I do a lot of that kind of work. I write regularly to between 15 and 20 inmates some of whom are doing research and some just write to me. Not only from New Zealand, but from Australia and the US. I'm currently corresponding with a lifer in Michigan. I try to help anybody who wants to follow on the same track as me. A few guys I assisted have managed to get degrees and good jobs.

I also have a lot of young guys come up to me, especially university students or people who have degrees, who have just been busted and are about to go to prison. They want some advice on how to get through it and come out the other end with something that will be of value to them.

"Most criminologists are armchair criminologists, getting their knowledge from textbooks and teaching from textbooks."

RG: What do you tell them?

Newbold: It depends on what they ask me, who they are and what their specific circumstances are. Some are women, some are men, some are in New Zealand, some are not, some are doing short lags, others are long-termers. There are hundreds of different variables that will determine my response, and dozens of different questions that are asked.

RG: From a research perspective how does firsthand experience help you?

Newbold: All of my research and teaching is informed by my experience. I am a very popular teacher because I teach the theory and principles but then I am able to illustrate it with real examples. The kids love this because they are getting it from the horse’s mouth.

I got out of prison in 1980 which is quite some time ago now. Things have changed a lot but I am able to keep in touch with what is going on in the prisons through the people that I write to. I also visit the prisons with my classes every year. So I think it's really import to have had hands on knowledge when you are teaching something like criminology like anything else really.

RG: What’s an experience you’ve shared with students a lot, and what did it teach them?

Newbold: I use examples all the time. Hundreds of them. If I’m talking about a general situation or phenomenon, I always try to find an example to illustrate. I do it to bring my lectures to life, and a lot of my stories are humorous ones. I try to convey, through my stories, the culture and idiom of prison life or of criminal value systems.

RG: Is firsthand experience essential to understanding criminology? 

Newbold: I think it is highly desirable. It forms the whole basis of convict criminology. It is research informed by personal experience. John Irwin who is sort of the founding father of convict criminology felt that research should be informed by person experience.

If you were writing about policing it would be a huge advantage to have been a policeman. To teach policing without policing experience is like fighting with one hand behind your back. I think personal experience is essential. Absolutely essential. I am not saying people should actually go to prison. Someone who has worked in a prison is going to have a big advantage over someone who hasn't. It is a fundamental of anthropology. You don't get anthropologist generally writing about other cultures unless they have actually done field work in those cultures. You can't just rely on second hand experience.

I think it's really critical and it's something a lot of sociologists don't do. They live in their ivory towers and pontificate about something in which they have no personal knowledge.

RG: Have you ever felt that there are disadvantages or biases from firsthand experience?

Newbold: No, I don't see how extra knowledge can be a disadvantage. I have access to all the knowledge that other criminologists have, by reading papers and textbooks, but I have extra knowledge from my own experience.

RG: In talking to convicts themselves, it must help to understand the terms they use and have a sense of mutual understanding. Have you experienced that?

Newbold: There is lots of innuendo. When somebody says something you have to understand the context of what they are saying. It's what Max Weber called verstehen (understanding). It's all very well to hear something and take it at face value. But unless you understand the underlying contexts and meaning of what's said then you are only going to get a superficial compression of what that person is saying and doing. There are hidden meanings in a lot of actions and statements.

RG: I guess there is a lot of distrust in the prison world. Are they more trusting of you because of your background?

Newbold: This is very much the case. I'm able to get information because of my background. I can use the language and idioms they are familiar with. Whereas if you go along to interview somebody and that person can't relate to you at all. You are from a completely different world. A bright shiny faced kid. You are going to get told some bullshit. They will either tell you stuff that they want you to believe or they will tell you lies deliberately just for a joke.

When I was doing my PhD, I was researching and interviewing lots of people. Once they knew I had been to prison the information quality changed completely. When I started to talk like a criminal and use the rhyming slang, just talking the way I did while I was in prison, it totally changed the atmosphere.

You would ring someone up and you would initially get a "oh, yeah alright" and then once they realized you knew what you were talking about and you start asking really detailed questions and speaking with idioms, suddenly they open up. An interview which looked like it would close down after 15 mins would end up lasting 3 hours.

Interestingly, the same principal applied to prison officers. When talking to former prison officers they would be guarded to start with but then they would open up in the same way. It was like old soldiers. It doesn’t matter which side you were on. Old soldiers are old soldiers. They emphasized with what I was doing and that I wasn’t going to misinterpret what they were saying.

"They will either tell you stuff that they want you to believe or they will tell you lies deliberately just for a joke."

RG: How was your personal experience in prison?

Newbold: I found my time in maximum security to be a lot more stable. I didn't really develop a hatred of prison officers until I got into the minimum security prison. In maximum security we were treated very well and there was a terrific relationship between staff and inmates. When I got into minimum security, which was halfway through my sentence, I was in a different world. It was a far more authoritarian, prison officers were very authoritarian.

This was partly because of the prison superintendent who was ex British army. He had that attitude towards us and there was a lot of resentment. The hate I had towards prison officers was nurtured there. I got into a lot of conflict. I had no conflict with prison officers in the maximum security. It was the opposite to what you'd expect.

RG: When you came out was it difficult to come back into society?

Newbold: I slipped back into the university world. I was lucky as I had some very strong support from the law faculty at Auckland University. A couple of professor really took me under their wing. I also started running marathons.

The main adjustment I had to make was losing the strong anti-authoritarian attitudes I came out of prison with. I hated coppers (cops), I hated screws (prison officers), I hated anybody in a position of authority. That was something that was ingrained in me while in prison.

It took me about 3-4 years before I started thinking straight and realized that all coppers aren’t bad. Just because you are wearing a police uniform doesn’t mean you are an asshole. There a lot of good coppers and prison officers. I had to interview a lot of prison officers for my PhD. I saw their point of view, I saw that they had problems too and they weren’t just oppressing the prisoners. Which is the way you feel in prison. They had problems, difficulties, and insecurities. I started empathizing with them. In prison I had only seen one side of the story. This was the same for the police. I hated them when I got out of jail. Now I am good friends with a lot of coppers.

RG: Was that hate from their actions or was that just the culture of the prison?

Newbold: It was the culture of the prison. It was propaganda. It is the whole inmate mentality. The whole psyche is that all coppers are bad, the only good cop is dead cop, they are all assholes and liars.

A lot of cops have the same idea about criminals. When they get out of the police force they realize that as well. You have these two indoctrinated parties, you got the criminal world and the police and they are both indoctrinated against one another. They hate one another because of what stand for and the terms of the culture that they have been inculcated into.

RG: How much has prison changed since your research has begun?

Newbold: It has changed dramatically since I was in prison. The prisons of today are almost unrecognizable. The prisons of today, both in New Zealand and the US, are far more authoritarian than they were. They are much larger in terms of population, when I was in prison there was only 2500 people in the whole system now there is 9500. In the US it has gone from about 900,000 to 2.4 million. There is no personal rapport that we had with prison officers, that doesn't exist anymore.

New Zealand has moved towards the US style of prison government and atmosphere. There is a lot more lock up, fewer privileges, far less employment, and there is much higher barrier between prison officers and inmates. There is very little personal interaction between staff and inmates. Inmates are like sheep and prison officers are like sheep herders. That's what I noticed when I went to the US, which is now in New Zealand.

"It is the whole inmate mentality. The whole psyche is that all coppers are bad, the only good cop is dead cop, they are all assholes and liars."

RG: What kind of effect does that have on the prisoners?

Newbold: Every single prison murder in New Zealand has occurred since 1979. The bulk of which have occurred since 2000. Lethal violence didn't exist when I was in prison, there was no such thing. There had never been a prisoner killed by another prisoner prior to 1979. Since then there has been 13 deaths. Of those 13, 12 occurred after 1985 and the majority of those since 2000. The rate is escalating.

RG: Why do you think this is happening?

Newbold: Well there is a lot more people in prison. The percentage of people in prison for serious violent crimes has also increased dramatically. When I was in prison only about 30-35 percent of all prisoners were in for violent crimes now it’s around 60 percent

RG: How does that happen?

Newbold: Changes in policy. When I was in prison there were a lot of drug offenders doing long sentences. But since 1985 there has been a tendency not to imprison property offenders. It's actually law. Instead, violent offenders are being sent to prison and are getting longer and longer sentences.

So not only are there more violent offenders in prison but they are staying in prison for a lot longer. When I was in prison the average lifer was out in 12 years. A murderer would be out in 12 years. Nowadays we have people doing up to 30 years with no parole minimums and lots of people are doing minimums of more than 20 years, some of whom will never be released.

Also the parole board is far more likely to recall people. About a third of all people in prison are recalls. Virtually everyone is released on parole, meaning they can be recalled at any stage. The parole board is recalling people for minor breaches, what they call “hair trigger” recalls. When I was in prison once you got out, you got out.

RG: When someone is going to be in prison for a long time does change the way they approach prison?

Newbold: Long termers settle down better. They settle down into their sentences. The worst people to do time with are the short termers. Because they are here today and gone tomorrow. They are only concerned with their personal gratification and don’t care about the prison long term. It’s good to have a lot of long termers because they are a lot more stable. Older people are also much better to do time with than young people. Young people doing short term sentences are just crazy. They make for a terrible environment. When you have long termers the prison is a lot more stable.

RG: What does the future of convict criminology look like?

Newbold: The idea was to internationalize it but that's not going to happen because of the difficulties in getting a US visa for people with criminal records.

I have missed a lot of conferences because of the visa arriving too late. So convict criminology is confined to the US. You need a strong base and the US is the only place in the world that has enough criminals to form a group.

I will probably be the last in this part of the world.


Image courtesy of Christian Senger.

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