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In Memory: John Irwin

Barbara Owen is a nationally-known expert in the areas of girls, women and crime, women-centered policy and women’s prison culture. She is currently developing research and policy on women’s issues in an international and human rights context. In the article below she remembers John Irwin who passed away on January 3rd.

John Irwin, a preeminent sociologist who focused his work on incarceration and its ongoing harm, passed away on January 3, 2010. While teaching sociology at San Francisco State University for 27 years, he produced an influential body of work that combined advocacy and rigorous research. He came to this work from a unique and informed perspective. Before receiving a PhD in sociology from UC Berkeley in 1968, he served five years in a California state penitentiary for armed robbery. His first book, The Felon, is a classic description of convict careers with the prison system. Following this landmark work, he has written about jails and the underclass, the decades of correctional and philosophical unrest in Prisons in Turmoil, and documented current dilemmas facing the correctional complex in, The Warehouse Prison and a just-published book on male lifers and their search for redemption.

Most recently, John Irwin was a lead author in the policy critique Unlocking America which calls for substantial reform of the US sentencing system. He was also a member of the Working Party for the American Friends Service Committee and contributed to the report, Struggle for Justice, a landmark in the prisoner rights world.

John Irwin was a founding father of two social and intellectual movements: The Prisoners Union which attempted to organize prisoners and gain recognition of their civil and political rights; and the Convict Criminology school of thought that examined imprisonment from the perspective of the academically-trained convict. While he inspired several generations of new scholars, this legacy of mentoring former prisoners to critically document and analyze the prison remains an enduring contribution to intellectual life in American criminology.

John Irwin was also very supportive of students and encouraged their work both verbally and by being positively critical of their work. Although it was 33 years ago, I can still remember his remarks on the first paper I submitted to him in my master’s level graduate program. He commented on the strengths and the weaknesses of my argument, improving both my work and my confidence to go on for my PhD. When he asked me to write the afterward to the OUP book, The Warehouse Prison, I was truly honored to have my work on women’s prisons included in a John Irwin book. I know that I would not have my career as a prison researcher without that support and encouragement. I suspect many criminologists feel the same.

John Irwin was a witness to over four decades of correctional practice by focusing on the lived experience of the imprisoned and questioning America’s approach to punishment. While he will be greatly missed by all of us who are committed to social justice, his legacy as a scholar and an advocate will continue to shape our work.

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