Appalachian State University in Boone, North Carolina got more than just Ivory Tower experience when it found a credentialed expert to teach Introduction to Criminal Justice. “As a convict criminologist, I had the opportunity to analyze prison culture from the perspectives of participant and observer,” Dr. Daniel S. Murphy wrote in a paper delivered at the annual meeting of the American Society of Criminology five years ago.
Dr. Murphy served five years in federal prison on a marijuana conviction. Not too surprisingly, he views the war on drugs as a problem. The professor gets glowing reviews from many of his students, both in the evaluations that he posts on his own web site and in the anonymous comments offered in his entry on ratemyprofessor.com. The latter are more revealing:
• “He was in prison so he’s very biased, which gave him a better insight but also made him kind of arrogant.
• [He] “harps on his time in jail and how much ‘this system is broke,’ a phrase he’ll say at least five times a class. Good man though, easy class.
• “…the stories were great, applied learning at its best!”
At least one student went on record, though, with observations far less sanguine. According to Graham Shaw, whose father is an ex-cop:
• “He claimed that plea bargains are extortion.
• “He planned to ‘prove’ that prison was cruel and unusual punishment.
• “He took cheap shots at Supreme Court Justice Scalia for saying the Constitution isn’t a living document.
Dr. Murphy earned a Bachelor of Science degree in sociology at the University of Wisconsin at Madison before he was sent up. He received a Master’s from the same department at the same school after his release from prison and went on to earn a Ph.D. from Iowa State University. Dr. Murphy has taught at Appalachian State since 2003.
His area of concentration is prison health care. In the paper he delivered five years ago, he blasted the U. S. Congress for passing The Federal No Frills Prison Act of 1997. “Through legislative actions, Congress and the [Federal Bureau of Prisons] FBOP have taken from the convict far more than just weights,” he wrote. “Many of those incarcerated had discovered a sense of commitment and discipline through weight lifting.”
“More than physical development, many grew in strength of character.” In his paper, Dr. Murphy catalogues a number of legitimate prison health care horror stories, including his own story of a near-death experience he had while behind bars. Curiously, he lumps in with these accounts tales of addicted inmates who might not always elicit the same sympathetic response from readers that they got from Dr. Murphy.
“When I first got to prison I had the DTs—shaking, paranoid, frantic,” an alcoholic inmate told Dr. Murphy. “I could not stand to have nobody touch me or talk to me.”
“The first year was really tough because of the alcohol,” the inmate explained. “Before coming to prison, I was doing at least a six-pack of beer every night after work, and two cases on the weekends.”
Although he tries to emphasize the Spartan nature of prison life today, Dr. Murphy offers at least one revealing glimpse of life behind bars in his passage on how different personality types cope with incarceration. “The health nut shunned the slop passed off as food in the prison chow hall,” Dr. Murphy writes. “In response, the health nut prepared his cuisine in microwave ovens located in some cell units.”
“I was amazed at the gourmet-quality meals many were able to miraculously create with the limited supplies available.” What a great idea for a series on PBS!
Malcolm A. Kline is the executive director of Accuracy in Academia.