Criminology: A Critical and Open Approach

Below is the third in a series of posts by participants in the Winter 2021 Open Pedagogy Fellowship, coordinated by the Mina Rees Library. Fellows will share insight into the process of converting a syllabus to openly-licensed and/or zero-cost resources, as well as their experiences in the Fellowship.

Angela LaScala-Gruenewald is a doctoral student in the Sociology PhD Program at The Graduate Center. Their research explores social control and punishment in social systems with an emphasis on how bureaucratic processes create inequality through racialized organizational structures and the criminalization of poor people. Angela’s current project uses qualitative methods to examine how fines and fees are applied in suburban and rural court systems. Angela teaches contemporary social theory and criminology at Hunter College.

When I found out I was teaching criminology at Hunter College this spring, the topic felt enormous. Given that criminology’s historical roots (e.g., connections to the eugenics movement) and contemporary practices (e.g., place-based policing) are enmeshed in racist, sexist, capitalist, and colonial projects, it felt important to teach a course focused on developing a socio-political framework for the topic, rather than exploring every aspect of criminology. I decided to emphasize discussions on the nature of crime and punishment (What is crime? Who defines it?) and skim (or even skip) more technical reviews (How do courts work? How many people are in prison?). As Agozino and Ducey (2020) write in their description of critical liberation criminology, this aspires towards “a ‘skeptical’ study of crime, deviance, and control as opposed to a statistically framed correctionalism.”

I had two big dreams when I sat down to think through a more critical syllabus. First, I wanted to break free from the traditional textbook-based course. As I sifted through criminology syllabi for ideas, I found that most undergraduate classes relied on textbooks. Courses cost students $60 to $100, and the more critical –and radical – criminologies were relegated to the final chapter(s) and, therefore, the final week(s) of the semester. In addition to decentering rigid textbook approaches, I wanted to (re)center researchers who were incarcerated or had other experiences with penal systems. These two goals left me with a lot of questions: How could I find open access articles? What repositories existed that highlight criminological work by people who were formerly incarcerated? How were identities disclosed (and should they be)? And what are the trade-offs between compensating a marginalized group of academics for their labor and prioritizing zero-cost material?

The OER Bootcamp created opportunities to explore these questions. I started by looking for open access articles to review criminology theory and ended up tripping over an open access textbook, Introduction to the American Criminal Justice System. It appears to be one of the only free textbooks that delves into theory (there are many options if you are interested in legal studies or practitioner-based texts). One site (University of Minnesota’s Open Textbook Library) also included reviews of the OER textbooks, which meant I knew certain sections would be reductive or require additional context. Although sometimes in critical pedagogy, textbook feels like a dirty word, this textbook created necessary structure. It was easy to jump between sections, allowing the textbook to play a supporting role to more challenging articles, rather than dictating the narrative arch of the class. I could also use the relevant 25% of the book, without worrying that students had paid for a text that was only employed periodically and strategically. 

My attempt to create a syllabus centering the voices and expertise of formerly incarcerated people was a challenging learning experience. I should say upfront that I am an outsider in this community and never subject to carceral human caging, so during my research I tried to remain reflexive and open-minded as I learned about this rich and contested area of criminology. The idea of decolonizing academia and fighting for the inclusion of oppressed and marginalized voices in the production of knowledge is not a new struggle (Combahee River Collective, 1977;  more specifically consider Davis, 2003 Chapter 3 for a brief history of prison writing and activism).

Although incarcerated and formerly incarcerated people have contributed to criminology since its beginnings, it was not until the 1980s and 90s that the first organized efforts to include incarcerated voices in the discipline emerged with the rise of “convict criminologists” (CC). Established in 1997, CC serves as a voluntary writing and activist community that seeks to challenge dominant theories and discourses on crime and punishment (Ross and Richards, 2003). Over the last two decades, CC has carved out organizational spaces for the production of knowledge through journals, blogs, and essays. As I read about the history of CC and combed through journals of the “penal press” like The Journal of Prisoners on Prisons, I also found its fair share of critics: the usual mainstream ivory tower

skeptics who questioned the empirical power of CC methods (e.g. personal narrative or ethnography) as well as more emic concerns since CC is often dominated by white, cisgender, heterosexual, and/or masculine viewpoints, mirroring other segments of academia (see Larsen & Piché, 2012) Rose et al., 2016). Sifting through these texts and debates, I noticed a strong commitment to open access. The materials are testimony to the strength of “carceral citizenship” (Miller and Alexander, 2016; Smith & Kinzel, 2020) and its necessary socio-political power in and beyond criminology.

In the end, I was left with more questions than answers (in good ways). I found that, as in any community, the pieces most accessible and organized in repositories were written by individuals with the most resources and power and those who were able and willing to be “out” and “open” about their past. As I read, I knew voices were missing–maybe voices that found the CC label reductive, unsafe, undesirable, and/or unnecessary for their criminological contributions. 

For me, the project I undertook soon appeared too challenging, understudied, and under-resourced to build a truly critical course around the voices of the carceral citizenry. That’s not to say it can’t or shouldn’t be done, but the question of by, with, and for whom remains outstanding. In the January OER bootcamp, I was grateful for the opportunity to do a little solo climbing of this complicated hill and build a better sense of the terrain, history, and tensions. For my course, I ultimately included a few pieces from those who both identified formally with the Convict Crimminologist community and those who did not. I hoped this would serve as a first step to challenge students to think about knowledge production and display the spectrum of worldviews on this topic.


Davis, A. Y. (2003). Are prisons obsolete?. Seven Stories Press.

Miller, R. J., & Alexander, A. (2015). The price of carceral citizenship: Punishment, surveillance, and social welfare policy in an age of carceral expansion. Mich. J. Race & L., 21, 291.

Ross, J. I., & Richards, S. C. (2003). Convict criminology. Belmont, CA: Wadsworth/Thomson Learning.

About the Author

Elvis Bakaitis is the Interim Head of Reference at the Mina Rees Library.