Foreword to "Criminal to Critic"
Randall G. Shelden
I came to UNLV in the fall of 1977, making me one of a small handful of faculty who are still around. The following year I began to establish a connection with a new opened prison located about 30 miles southwest of Las Vegas in a small town called Jean, Nevada. While doing
research at the prison I met two people, one of whom was an inmate and the other a counselor. The inmate’s name was Jim Palombo and the counselor’s name was Terry Hubert. Terry had just completed his graduate work in the sociology department at UNLV, after which he
began work within the Nevada Department of Corrections.
I have known Jim Palombo for about 30 years now. We met while he was in prison and I, fortunately, had something to do with the change in his life pattern. This happened as we developed a post-secondary education program while he was incarcerated. Jim and I stayed in
touch through the years, mostly from afar, as he journeyed from one part of the world to another, which included a military base in the Middle East just as the War in Iraq was starting. In one of those curious twists of fate, he has landed back into prison, but in a different role, for
in the fall of 2006 he became employed by the same prison that once held him captive.
When I learned that he was writing an “autobiographical discourse,” I was very anxious to read it. After looking through the first draft I was convinced that his story, especially as it was linked with his varied experiences with America's social problems, was one worth telling. I was
more than happy to become involved.
Using a clear and engaging style, Jim brings to light a perspective that is, at once, insightful and easy to follow. In a challenging and informative way, he provides an opportunity for all of us to stop and reflect upon the kind of society we currently have, and the kind of society we
wish to be. Palombo's book is in fact unique among today's contemporary works.
Certainly there have been a good number of authors who have related prison experiences to the world at large, and particularly to the injustices that exist. I have only to cite the powerful writings of individuals like George Jackson, Eldridge Cleaver, and Malcolm X. But this is not a
story of a life-long criminal, or about someone hoping to bring about revolutionary change. Rather, it is a story about a life-long American - someone born and raised in the changing times of America's last half century whose involvement with crime is only a part of the story and
whose imprisonment actually sets off a journey to better understand America.
There is a significant correlation between what Jim relays in this book to what Tocqueville told us some one hundred and seventy years ago. I say this not to offer a comparison of the writers, but more to underscore the point that the offerings of both writers tell us a great deal
about the “American experiment.” Both relate to an individual's observations as he travels in and around America's attempt at democracy, although Palombo certainly has the advantage of almost two centuries, as well as that of being a genuine American.
However, there is another difference between the two, another advantage for Palombo if you will. Jim's inquiries begin with an attachment to the writings of Karl Marx, something that was not possible for Tocqueville. Sparked by a book given to him by his prison counselor (The
Critique of Legal Order, by one of the foremost criminologists of our time, Richard Quinney), Palombo begins to examine America through the lens of a radical thinker. While in prison, and via the scholarship of many famous Writers (Locke, Rousseau, Hobbes, etc., as well as
Marx, Lenin, Trotsky, etc) Jim follows the logic of Marx into a critical appraisal of American capitalist society. He begins to analyze the problems of our modern justice system within the context of political and economic variables, and, although not without internal and personal
dilemma, he comes to see America as a place consumed by the elements of capitalism.
Given his new-found perspective, Palombo sets out from prison to “make the system better.” Importantly, there is a transformation of sorts here, in that his radical position becomes more focused on simply getting that position understood, rather than on trying to impose its
tenets on the system. For Jim, then, the understanding of the position and the creation of a dialogue that involves that understanding will serve the ends of making America a better place.
With this desire in mind, his struggles throughout the book provide real-life drama, drama that all of us should be able to relate to, and that all of us should be concerned with. In fact, many of the problematic concerns that Jim raises point to the academic world that I occupy. In
this world, one that has been provided the gift of free and open discussion of ideas and one filled with access to information perhaps unprecedented in the civilized world, Jim finds some disturbing contradictions. These contradictions exist between the goals of scientific research
(this book itself actually represents an alternative to our more commonly accepted “Ivory Tower” research) and the goals of teaching and community service. Simply put, the significance of the teaching and community service often, and continually more so, take a back seat to
the mandates of research. And, importantly, the gap that exists between what we teach/preach about America and what we practice seems more filled with contradiction than clarity.
For Jim, it becomes incumbent that, in terms of substantive information, we begin to integrate into our educational process more of the ideas relevant to a critical analysis of capitalism. This he contends will not only help us to understand America more clearly, but, as
importantly, bring the significance of civic responsibility back to a position of prominence - something Jim cites as problematically lacking in today's educational endeavors.
After documenting his experiences in Europe, Asia and the Middle East, experiences that provide him with, among other things, a better sense of being an American, Jim expresses his distress and frustration over what is occurring in our country. He writes in his conclusion that
“we are indeed in some form of national identity crisis...where we seem afraid to recognize the identity we see before us, denying we are part of it, denying our ability to make any difference, denying any need to confront what we see.” And he references what he calls most
“illogical” circumstances “where the political arena clearly doesn’t represent the people's interests (money is such a factor in moving politicians and legislation that you're a fool to think otherwise), and where less than fifty percent of the people vote for our leaders and even fewer
trust our government.”
At the end of the book, and mirroring his own belief that nothing positive can occur in America without an informed and educated public, he closes with the words of Thomas Jefferson: that “we must enlighten the people...educate and inform the whole mass of people...enable
them to see that it is in their interest to preserve peace and order...they are the only sure reliance for the preservation of our liberty.” These are powerful words that support the theme that Jim advances throughout the book; that being informed means understanding as much as
we can about our collective selves...including what a capitalist system can and cannot support.
In my view, Criminal to Critic: Reflections Amid the American Experiment makes an important and timely contribution to understanding the world in which we live. It is story of one man who works to integrate his own politicization with the realities of trying to make positive
changes in our society. From his crime and prison days, to the development of his “formal” education, to helping immigrants, drug users, and prisoners, to his experiences in foreign countries, Palombo presents a thought-provoking tale, and I am sure you will enjoy the reading.
You are about to become involved with a particular kind of odyssey, and I feel confident in saying that once you begin it, you will be interested until its end.
I would like to add a comment regarding my role in the book. The best word that comes to mind is that of “contributing editor.” This is because I not only did editing work, but I also provided explanatory footnotes along the way, footnotes that reference relevant findings/research
that support what Jim has written. In addition, I also wrote an Afterword. This provides a brief overview of what has happened within the criminal justice system - especially the prison system - and American society since Jim was incarcerated. Included in this discussion is what
I considered to be a most significant concern, namely the growing inequality that threatens the “American Dream” itself. The goal of both the footnotes and the Afterword was to add an academic voice to the piece. Within this context, we hope that this will enable the reader to
see Jim's experiences in the larger context of our history. And hopefully, as Jim would most assuredly want, you will be affected beyond that point.