As I'm preparing to teach my favorite class at UC Berkeley this spring (Legal Studies 160: Punishment, Culture, and Society), I've been thinking about California's twisted penal history and the man who knows it the best, the great John Irwin, the legendary prison sociologist (and convict criminologist before that had a name). John's life runs like a river through the hopes and fears of the Golden state from end of World War II to the present. He served time at a California prison for auto theft, earned a doctorate in sociology at UCLA, was a leader of the transformational prisoners rights movement of the 1970s, and a great public intellectual and educator at San Francisco State University for most of the last forty years.
Irwin's many books have definitively characterized California's (regrettably) influential penal devolution from the optimistic "correctional institution", whose contradictions and fate were brilliantly dissected in the book Prisons in Turmoil (1980), to the cynical and vicious "warehouse" prisons whose current crises Irwin foretold in The Warehouse Prison: Disposal of the New Dangerous Class (2004). Most recently Irwin has been documenting the lives of California's burgeoning "lifer" population in Lifers: The Long Road to Redemption (2009)
2009 has been a bitter year for those of us who hope to see California unlock itself from the nightmare of mass incarceration. The executive has used the fiscal crisis to drag its feet on fixing intolerable prison conditions, and the Democratic controlled legislature failed to pass even modest steps toward sentencing reform. As a faded reform governor limps off stage, those contending to replace him in both parties barely acknowledge our penal crises. Now, to top it off, I learn that John Irwin, whose prison hardened build and boyish good looks never faded, is ailing.
Still, on this New Year's Eve, I'm taking the long view, and trying to think, like the great John Irwin, about our current crisis, as well as the opportunities it creates to forge a better democracy and a freer state. I'm going to dedicate my class this spring to that crises and how this generation of California students can solve it. For the first time ever, the class will be available to the general public through podcast of the audio and power-point slides, so I'm going to invite all of you to participate (look for the syllabus and links in a couple of weeks).
I'm also going to hope for a least a couple of John Irwin guest lectures.
Happy New Year.