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January 5, 2010

John Irwin: Scholar, Activist, Convict Criminologist

The Sentencing Project joins the criminal justice reform community in mourning the loss of our board member, friend and colleague, John Irwin, who died on January 3rd in San Francisco at the age of 80.  John Irwin was proud to be a “convict criminologist” and advocate for social justice.

Irwin’s path to academia was hardly typical, beginning with a five-year prison term for armed robbery in 1952 in Soledad Prison.  During his time in prison he earned 24 college credits through a university extension program, the kind of programming that he would later note had been all but eliminated in most prison systems today.  Upon his release he received a B.A. from UCLA and then earned his Ph. D. in Sociology from the University of California, Berkeley.  He then was offered a faculty position at San Francisco State University, where he taught for 27 years before his retirement. 

Throughout his career John combined a passion for scholarship with engagement for social justice.  The author of six highly-regarded books analyzing the institutions of the criminal justice system, his insights in such works as “The Felon” and “The Jail” provided cogent analyses of the interaction between the structure of the justice system and the individuals processed through that system. His research and writing examined aspects of the system that were often not popular to take on, such as his last book, “Lifers:  The Long Road to Redemption,” based on his lengthy interviews with people serving life sentences in a California prison. 

John Irwin was also notable as one of the founders and leading lights of what has been termed the “convict criminology” movement.  Begun in 1997 at a panel presentation at the American Society of Criminology’s annual conference, the movement presented a means by which the growing number of people with prison experiences who had earned doctorate degrees and entered academia could bring forward their unique perspectives on the justice system. Since that time, through public presentations and scholarship, the group has presented an assessment of justice issues based on the fact that, as John said, “you can never get away from your prison experience.”

In his first years out of prison John had already become intimately engaged with movements for reform. In 1969 he founded Project Rebound at San Francisco State University, a program designed to open up a path to college for people coming out of prison.  He then served on the working party of the American Friends Service Committee that produced “Struggle for Justice” in 1971, a highly influential book at the time for its critique of punishment and its arbitrary imposition.

At The Sentencing Project we were privileged to have John Irwin join our board of directors in 2005.  His engagement, personal warmth, and passion for justice inspired the work of the organization.  Even within an organization committed to a broad view of change, John always challenged us to think in bold ways about what kind of justice system, and society, we hoped to achieve.  And he did so with humor, grace, and intelligence.

Our thoughts are now with his wife, Marsha Rosenbaum, family and friends.  And we hope that John’s spirit will continue to guide all of us in our struggle for justice.


read San Francisco Chronicle obituary

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Issue Area(s): Incarceration
State(s): California