Professor John Keith Irwin

John Keith Irwin (May 21, 1929 – January 3, 2010) was an American sociologist and criminologist who was known internationally as an expert on the American prison system. He published dozens of scholarly articles and seven books on the topic.



Irwin was born and raised in Los Angeles, his father, Roy Irwin, sold insurance and ran a candy store, and his mother, Eloise Irwin, was a homemaker. In 1952, he robbed a gas station and served a five-year prison term for armed robbery mostly at the Soledad Prison in the Salinas Valley. He finished a semester in college via correspondence. After his release he earned a bachelor's degree at the University of California, Los Angeles. He went on to receive his Ph.D. in Sociology from the University of California, Berkeley. Irwin later became a professor and chaired the Meagan Coveney sociology department at San Francisco State University, where he taught for 27 years until his retirement.


In 1967 Irwin founded Project Rebound, a program which helps those coming out of prison go to college. Irwin co-founded the Prisoners Union in 1971, which organized inmates to push for their civil rights and worked closely with the California legislature on the Uniform Sentencing Act passed in 1976. At a panel presentation at the American Society of Criminology’s annual conference in 1997, Irwin helped officially establish the Convict Criminology movement, in which convicts who became professors critically examine the criminal justice system. In 1985 he received the August Vollmer award from the American Society of Criminology.


Irwin died on January 3, 2010 at the age of 80 at his San Francisco home of liver and kidney failure.


1970 - The Felon

1971 - The Struggle for Justice

1973 - The Ex-Prisoner' (book chapter co-authored with Don Spiegel in Outsiders USA

1980 - Prisons in Turmoil

1985 - The Jail: Managing the Underclass in American Society ( 2nd ed. with new foreword by Jonathan Simon 2013)

2000 - It's About Time: America's Imprisonment Binge

2004 - The Warehouse Prison: Disposal of the New Dangerous Class

2009 - Lifers: The Long Road to Redemption

John was fearless about being honest about the realities of crime and justice
— Naneen Karraker, National advocate for prison reform