Thursday, 6 January 2011

Thought of the Day

" There was a proposition in a township there to discontinue public schools because they were too expensive. An old farmer spoke up and said if they stopped the schools they would not save anything, because every time a school was closed a jail had to be built. It's like feeding a dog on his own tail. He'll never get fat. I believe it is better to support schools than jails."

Mark Twain

Wednesday, 5 January 2011

Thought of the Day

"To assert in any case that a man must be absolutely cut off from society because he is absolutely evil amounts to saying that society is absolutely good, and no-one in his right mind will believe this today."

Albert Camus (1913-60)

Tuesday, 4 January 2011

Men's Justice for Women

I am not sure of the source of this article orginally published on the No More Prison website. I suspect it may have come from Justice for Women.
My name is Donna Tinker. I am a 30-year-old woman currently serving a life sentence for taking the life of the man I loved. Sadly my story is a very familiar one. After years of being in this abusive relationship, on the 13th June 1999, he became a victim of this relationship too. The depth of pain and remorse I feel for my husband dying by my hand is something I am incapable of putting into words. I never wanted or meant for this to happen. It started as just another argument that moved as it always did on to him hitting me. This night in particular he'd kicked me in the face and punched me. But then he picked a hot iron up, and I panicked. I was just trying to stop him hurting me anymore. I couldn't and still can't make sense of my trial. No witnesses were called for my defence. I trusted my legal team, as in a situation like this you have no choice but to put your trust in them. Shouldn't I have been advised that witnesses were needed so they could establish the nature of the relationship between my husband and myself? Wouldn't this have been crucial information the jury should have heard?
Donna Tinker
The Commission on Women and the Criminal Justice System, set up by the charitable Fawcett Society a couple of years ago made the case that women are increasingly turning to serious and violent crimes because they have been brutalised by violence against them, and that they turn to crime for different reasons from men, and that the criminal justice system is failing to tackle this. A trend was revealed of women being forced into drug dealing by abusive partners they feared, while for others offending was closely linked to a history of violence against them. Murder, the intentional and unlawful killing of another human, carries a mandatory life sentence. In some cases the killing of another human is 'justified' in which case the charge of murder is dropped and the defendant set free. In other cases the killing is 'excused' but not totally justified. In these cases the charge of murder is reduced to manslaughter and the judge decides the sentence. The sentence can range from life imprisonment to a community service order. However, the law concerning murder in the UK is inherently gendered. By looking at the legal defences to murder we see how they represent a male understanding of the crime and men's experiences of killing.

There are three main defences to a charge of murder: Self defence is a full defence and results in an acquittal. Self defence can be argued if the defendant can show that their life was in imminent danger. However, in claiming self defence it must also be shown that 'proportional force' was used. So, if the person killed were attacking with their bare fists the use of a knife would be disproportionate. This defence ignores the physical discrepancies between men and women. It also ignores the fact that many women are in fear because of their past experiences of violence from the man.

Diminished responsibility is a partial defence and reduces a murder charge to manslaughter. To argue diminished responsibility the defendant must prove that their mind was impaired by an abnormality at the time of the killing. This defence shifts the focus from a man's violence to the woman's state of mind. Diminished responsibility medicalises women's actions and implies that had their mental faculties not been impaired they would have continued to be a willing punch bag. It can include the argument that the woman was suffering from 'Battered Woman's Syndrome' which is based on two fundamental premises: a cycle model of violence and 'learned helplessness'. For BWS to apply a woman must have been through this cycle at least once, and a cluster of symptoms develop through which the syndrome can be diagnosed. These include: low self-esteem, self-blame, anxiety, depression, fear, suspiciousness and loss of belief in the possibility of change. BWS is recognised as a formal clinical syndrome within post traumatic stress disorder. Lawyers frequently ask if there is a 'syndrome' or very specialised research evidence which will demonstrate a particular point. Both rest on medicalising and particularising what is an extremely common social event; the use of physical and sexual violence by men against women and children. The language in many of the US cases shows that courts understand BWS as a new and excusable form of female irrationality. Alarmingly BWS is increasingly being used in criminal and civil cases to establish what constitutes a battered woman. If women do not fit the model then it is being argued that they were not in fact abused. It has been argued that BWS should not be considered a medical abnormality, but a mental state which is normal in particular circumstances, relevant to all defences including self-defence and duress.
Provocation is also a partial defence. To use the defence it has to be shown that the provoking act was such that a 'reasonable man' would have responded as the defendant did under the same circumstances. Further, it must also be shown that the killing was the result of a sudden and temporary loss of self-control. The defence of provocation ignores the history of violence experienced by women by focusing only on the events immediately prior to the killing. There is no consistency in the application and understanding of the defence when it is used by women. This is because it is based on the idea of a man being provoked when another man insults his 'honour'. The immediate retaliation expected of the offended man ignores the particular experiences of women subjected to male violence.
As male violence against women continues to be a phenomenon in itself, infidelity remains the most frequent excuse for killing of wives and girlfriends. Men who kill their wives or girlfriends or ex partners and plead diminished responsibility or provocation nearly always walk free or get short sentences for manslaughter.
  • In 1991 Joseph McGrail was tried in Birmingham for the murder of his wife. He pleaded provocation on the basis that his wife was an alcoholic and swore at him. He killed her by repeatedly kicking her in the stomach. At the trial the judge commented ..."this lady would have tried the patience of a saint", he gave him a two year suspended sentence.
  • In 1995 Brian Steadman was jailed for three years after he hit her 13 times with a hammer, he pleaded diminished responsibility due the his wife's constant nagging.
  • In 1997 Joseph Swinburne killed his wife by stabbing her eleven times when she told him she was leaving him for another man. He was convicted of manslaughter and sentenced to 200 hours community service.
  • In 1992 Judge Dennison gave Bisla Rajinder Singh, an 18 month sentence suspended for one year for the manslaughter of his wife on the grounds of provocation. The judge told him "you have suffered through no fault of your own....your wife was a domineering lady with a sharp and persistent tongue".
  • Lucy Kellet was preparing to leave Oliver Kellet after years of abuse. As she as waiting for the removal van to take her to her new home he stabbed her repeatedly with a bowie knife. He pleaded manslaughter on the grounds of diminished responsibility and was given 3 year probation.
Compare these with the following women

  • In 1989 after 10 years of severe violence against her Kiranjit Aluwhalia threw petrol over her husbands feet and set it alight whilst he was sleeping, he died some days later. She was arrested and charged with murder, she was found guilty and sentenced to life imprisonment.
  • In 1992 Zoora Shah snapped after 12 years of physical and sexual violence when her partner turned his attention to her eldest daughter. She poisoned him and was convicted of murder, sentenced to life with a minimum of 20 years, she is still in prison.
  • In 1993 Josephine Smith shot her husband after many years of violence when he threatened to track her down and kill her and their three children if she left him. She was convicted of murder and sentenced to life with a minimum of 12 years.
  • In 1989 Malcolm Thornton, an alcoholic, threatened to kill his wife Sara and her daughter in their sleep, he taunted her with a knife. The police had been called to the home on numerous occasion throughout their relationship by Sara because of his attacks on her and he was in fact due to appear in court on an assault charge 10 days after he died. Sara feared for her own and for her daughter's life. She stabbed him once and called an ambulance. She pleaded guilty on grounds of diminished responsibility, she was found guilty of murder and sentenced to life imprisonment.
  • For four years Peter Iles persecuted Janet Gardner using violence, threats and harassment. On one occasion he tried to cut her throat, he beat and kicked her and burnt her with cigarettes. During the attack which led to his death he grabbed her round the neck and started beating her head against the kitchen doorway. Janet grabbed a knife and stabbed him seven times. She was cleared of murder but found guilty of manslaughter, and sentenced to five years in prison.

Margo Wilson and Martin Daly's work on domestic homicide has used data sets from a number of industrialised countries. One of the most important findings from their research is that leaving an abusive partner is actually the most dangerous thing women can do. Women have always known this, it is professionals who have taken an extremely long time to understand that well-founded fear is one of the most potent reasons why women do not leave violent men. Wilson and Daly also calculated that on the basis of recent figures the sex ratio for spouse killing is that for every 100 men who kill wives 23 women kill husbands. Women who kill have often experienced repeated and life threatening violence, with a greater frequency of coerced sex. Almost all the women had also attempted to leave and elicit the support of other agencies in their struggles to end violence. Many talk of reaching a point where they believe only one of them can survive. The basic question which should be addressed in such cases is: was the woman's use of violence in this particular circumstance reasonable given her size, strength and perception of danger. In terms of battered women who kill more appropriate reforms would be extending remit of self-defence.

The failure of murder defences to adequately reflect women's actual experiences is the reason why some feminists and women's rights activists are campaigning for a new defence to murder - self-preservation. Self-preservation is intended as a partial defence, and although not gender specific it is revolutionary in that it takes the circumstances which women commonly find themselves in (as opposed to those of men) as its point of departure. The proposed defence is a partial defence, reducing a charge of murder to manslaughter. It reflects the experiences of anyone subjected to repeated assaults or sexual abuse and acknowledges their responses as rational within an intolerable situation.

The proposed self - preservation defence:

It shall be a defence to a charge of murder, reducing the charge to manslaughter, if:
  • the deceased person had subjected the defendant or another person, with whom the defendant was at the time of the deceased person's death in a familial relationship, to continuing sexual or physical violence and
  • the deceased person was at the time of their death or had at any time been in a familial or intimate relationship with the defendant or with the person as described in (a) above and
  • the defendant believed that, but for their action, the deceased person would repeat the violence as stated above, so that their life or that of the person as described in (a) above was in danger.
In Section 1 above: 'Familial' means related, cohabiting or living in the same household 'Continuing' means any act of violence as defined below on more than one occasion 'Violence' means any act that would constitute an offence under the Offences Against the Person Act 1861, the Sexual Offences Act 1975 (as amended), or the Protection from Harassment Act 1997 'Intimate' means any sexual relationship not included in the definition of 'familial' 'Belief' must be reasonable in the context of ongoing abuse and violence.

It shall be for the defence to raise the issue where the circumstances are as outlined in Section1 above, and it will then be for the prosecution to prove that Section 1 does not apply.

The response of the Home Affairs Select Committee in rejecting the proposal as a useful way forward was that such a concept was unknown in English law, and that it suggested that such actions by abused women might be rational implying that mad women can be understood, bad women punished, but women as rational and creative survivors don?t exist. BWS plays into this invisibility by only allowing women to occupy the position of depressed and despairing victim. A couple of successes have been made on certain points in the cases of women appealing against their convictions for assaults on abusive partners:

Cumulative provocation at the hands of abusive partners can be considered with the final act of provocation; the judiciary has moved over the last few years in its interpretation of "provocation", influenced by feminist campaigners.

The characteristics of the "reasonable man" concerns the aspect of the defence of provocation, where the jury are directed to consider the characteristics of the "reasonable man". This is an area of law that has expanded over the last twenty years. The "reasonable man" is the yardstick by which the jury is supposed to consider what is reasonable behaviour, as opposed to an unreasonable reaction to an act of provocation.

The courts are also indirectly recognising the relevance of a long term history of abuse back to childhood through looking at so-called reasonable reactions to abusive partners where the act of provocation is somehow connected with such characteristics. The judiciary are finally accepting the argument that domestic violence and abuse are sufficient grounds for provocation. However, it is no where near convincing that even with the creation of new precedents the law will really work for women or be in any way "fair". Present defences largely ignore male violence.

Thought of the Day

"I think we need to create productive conversations and develop activism among different groups. We need activists, of course, but also intellectuals and scholars, people from the labor movement, women's movement, prisoners, former prisoners. We need to learn how to talk to and with each other. We need to develop new vocabularies.......we have to recognize our own potential power"

Angela Davis (1998)

Sunday, 2 January 2011

Prison Decayed: How Prison Films Support the Expansion of the Penal Estate

This article was published on the NMP website in 2006

by Paul Mason, Cardiff University


Ten years ago, Michael Howard, then British Home Secretary delivered his speech to the Conservative party faithful at their annual conference:
Prison works. It ensures we are protected from murderers, muggers and rapists - and it makes many who are tempted to commit crime think twice...This may mean that more people will go to prison. I do not flinch from that. We shall no longer judge the success of our justice by a fall in our prison population. (Michael Howard, Conservative Party Conference, October 1995.)
Two years previously, his counterpart in the Labour Party and then Shadow Home Secretary Tony Blair, was writing in The New Statesman that Labour should become 'tough on crime, tough on the causes of crime'(1993: 100). The increased politicisation of British criminal justice policy, over the last ten years in particular, has been matched with a correlative hardening of penal sanctions, a development mirrored in the United States (Garland 2001; Mathiesen 2000; Wacquant 2005; 2006), to the extent that now 'a failure to talk tough on crime is akin to political suicide' (Newburn and Jones 2005). Such a stance has meant that in November 2005, the prison population in England and Wales was 77,421, the second highest imprisonment rate in Western Europe (Prison Reform Trust 2005).

However, the contention that high prison rates mean lower crime is fundamentally flawed and remains a myth (Christie 2000; Dyer 2000; Jacobson 2005; Parenti 1999). This, coupled with the injustice and inhumanity of a system which locks up the socially excluded (Prison Reform Trust, 2005), a disproportionate number of ethnic minorities (Home Office, 2004) and those with mental health problems (Prison Reform Trust, 2005) clearly demonstrates the pressing need for alternatives to and the abolition of the prison system.

Many see the increased punitiveness in criminal justice policy as a populist reaction to the problems of crime (Garland 2001; Hutton 2005; Johnstone 2000; Loader 2005; Pratt 2000; Roberts et al. 2002; Ryan 2006). That pressure from an angry public, mediated through tabloid headlines, demands more displays of repressive punishment such as longer prison sentences, boot camps, tighter controls on sex offenders, anti-social behaviour orders and so on. Punishment becomes crueller, more emotive and ostentatious (Pratt 2000) as public insecurities about crime and the criminal intensify.

However, what has been lacking in this analysis is any engagement with media representations of prison and punishment, how and why they may contribute to the punitive in the public sphere. Only Mathiesen (Mathiesen 2000; 2001; 2003) has offered any meaningful thoughts on how media discourses around prison may intervene in the penal debate, and these are relatively brief. Adopting a similar position to those writing on penal populism, he posits that changes in government discourse around criminal justice policy have shifted from legal and moral values to opportunistic and media/public driven ones. The nature of public debate around crime and punishment has consequently altered, no longer predicated upon 'principled legitimation' (Mathiesen 2003: 3). He further suggests that media reporting magnifies violent and serious crime such that prison is constructed as the only solution:
In the newspapers, on television, in the whole range of media, the prison is simply not recognised as a fiasco, but as a necessary if not always fully successful method of reaching its purported goals. The prison solution is taken as paradigmatic, so that a rising crime rate is viewed as still another sign showing that prison is needed.'
(Mathiesen 2000: 144)
While Mathiesen's argument is a surely correct, it would be strengthen by an examination of the media coverage of prisons to which he refers. I offer here an examination of one prison discourse in popular culture: the prison film. I will argue that, over the last ten years the prison film has represented incarceration around two elements, both of which significantly impact upon debates around penal reform and abolition. Firstly, the graphic exploitation of violence and sexual assault in prison films is predominantly depicted voyeuristically and remains severed from any abolitionist or reformist context. While scenes of explicit brutality may present opportunities for the prison film to challenge the very existence of the penal estate, any oppositional discourse is subjugated to the lurid mise en scene of violence and sexual assault. Secondly, the representation of inmates as dehumanised other and deserving of harsh treatment, coupled with an avoidance of abolitionist narratives in death row films reaffirms the prison as the cornerstone of criminal justice sanctions. My analysis looks at English language prison films given a cinematic release between 1st January 1995 and 31st December 2005. This amounts to 28 films which are listed at the end.


Many of the films in the sample represent prison as a brutal, uncivilised place which punishes, degrades and humiliates. Potentially, such a construction of the penal system suggests a discourse of reform. Namely, an exploration of the futility and inhumanity of incarceration, made visible by such texts, presents an opportunity to raise the profile in public debate and mobilise opinion towards reform and abolition of the prison industrial complex.
However, a closer reading of the sample reveals not only a reluctance to challenge the existing penal system, but a scoptophilic treatment of violence, rape and death. Such acts are frequently presented in narratives across the sample, rarely framed within any considered or developed critique of prison. Instead, these elements offer are located within an exploitative agenda, in which vivid violence, rape and other sexual assaults are foregrounded. These are constructed in two principle ways, through pre-emptive talk and iconography; and in graphic displays.

In the sample analysed, prison is habitually and, crucially, immediately constructed within a discourse of violence and fear. The films define prison through its capacity for brutality and to instill terror. It is constructed in this way from the outset and, as I discuss later, rarely shifts or challenges this initial construction. Such a discourse is frequently built visually and aurally through the early scenes of prison. This often occurs via long shots of the prison façade accompanied by aggressive rap or rock music (Down Time, dir. Sean Wilson, 2001; A Letter From Death Row, dir. Marvin Baker & Bret Michaels 1998; Slam, 1998; Prison Song, dir. Darnel Martin, 2003) or the doom-laden orchestral score (Brokedown Palace or Just Cause, dir. Arne Glimcher, 1995). Alternatively, the viewer experiences the first steps inside the prison from the point of view of the newly-convicted inmate as they are processed through the system.

In The Mean Machine (dir. Barry Skolnick, 2001) for example, Danny Meehan, the film's protagonist, is shot walking towards the camera, along a corridor. When the scene cuts, the camera has switched behind him as he walks up the steps and into the main prison where he, and consequently the audience, is greeted by a cacophony of noise and abuse from other inmates shouting directly into the camera. This scene is very similar to the entrance into the main prison of newly convicted Slim in Down Time, and variations on this scene are to be found in Slam, Prison Song, A Letter From Death Row and Animal Factory. In the latter, the entry of new inmate Ron Decker to prison is again shot from his point of view, as the camera pans round the prison exercise yard, inmates are framed in close-up, mostly in vests, heavily tattooed, muscular and lifting weights, or prowling round the yard, staring. The correlation between prison and violence (as well as masculinity) is clearly expounded in these initial constructions of prison.

In other films in the sample, frequently those dealing with death row, the audience is positioned with, and as, the outsider: as a lawyer defending the convicted inmate (Just Cause, The Chamber (dir. James Foley, 1996), Last Dance (dir. Bruce Beresford, 1996)), a friend (Dead Man Walking (dir. Tim Robbins, 1996)) or a journalist (Life of David Gale (dir. Alan Parker, 2003)) but still within the fear/violence discourse. This is accomplished primarily through a focus on security, threat and danger. In all these texts, the visitor is repeatedly seen passing through wire gates, steel doors, metal detectors and other scanning equipment. Aural cues of incarceration are prominent in these scenes: doors slam, buzzers sound, keys jangle, gates creak and footsteps of prison officers echo, all mixed with the foreboding drone of the film's soundtrack. In Just Cause, retired and visible uneasy lawyer Paul Armstrong is asked by a laughing prison guard 'This your first time, Mr Armstrong?' In The Life of David Gale, journalists Bitsey Bloom and Zack Stemmons are taken through a maze of gates, doors and corridors on their way to meet Gale. There are several close-ups of razor wire and a sign which reads "No Hostages Will Exit". Their (and our) guide to the prison then says: 'We have three concerns here - safety, safety and safety. The visitation area is entirely secure, we just ask that you don't touch the glass".
It is not only through these opening scenes that the discourse of prison is formed. Threat and fear are consistently communicated through talk. But like the opening prison scenes, this occurs pre-emptively through inmate exchanges around fears of being beaten or raped; while guards and governors are at pains to remind inmates of the dangers of life inside:
Every day someone gets shanked in here. Every day someone gets beaten up in here. We got predators in here, son. We got people who will cut your throat for nothing at all but a packet of cigarette. You mind your business in here, son - do you understand where you are?
(Prison guard to new inmate, Ray in Slam)
I run a prison full of murderers and rapists. It's my job to discipline them anyway I can. Most of these guys have broken every rule in the book. It's my job to teach them respect. People like you better pray to God that people like me doing my job while they're in there. Because one of these days these scumbags are going to be out on the streets and then you better pray you're not walking down the street - you or one of your self-righteous, liberal friends - or one of these good ol' boys decides he's gonna put a bullet in that pretty head of yours.  (Warden Felcher to Prison Board visitor in A Letter From Death Row)
The dramatic and colloquial language borrowed from prison slang - "shanked" (stabbed) and the reduction of the prison population to "murderers and rapists" and "scumbags" serves to situate the prison firmly within a discourse where prison means constant threat of attacks and fear. These warnings to inmates also act as notifications to the audience of what they can expect to see during the film - explicit and graphic violence contextualised by nothing more than its location: a prison. This is concisely expressed in Prison Song, 'you're gonna have to fight - make no mistake about it - this is jail'.

Rape and sexual assault talk is also prevalent in the sample. In several films, new inmates are referred to as "fresh meat" (Life (dir. Ted Demme, 1999); Down Time, Prison Song). In Animal Factory, the older experienced Earl offers advice to new inmate Ron:
Young man - there are a lot of animals in here - sexual deviants, inverts who might try and pressure you....a young man looking the way you do without a great deal of penitentiary experience might find himself compromised: might find himself in need of a friend.
This advice is echoed by long-standing friend, Frank, to the soon-to-be incarcerated Monty in 25th Hour (dir. Spike Lee, 2002):
This is my advice to you - first figure out who's who. Find the man nobody's protecting and beat him until his eyes bleed. Let them think you're a little bit crazy but respectful too. Respectful of the right man - you're a good looking boy Monty - it won't be easy for you.....We do what we do to survive.
25th Hour is undoubtedly the clearest example of the pre-emptive talk of violence and sexual assault in the sample. The narrative traces the last 24 hours of freedom for Monty Brogan, a man about to begin a seven year sentence for drug dealing. One of the key narratives concerns Monty's anxiety over what awaits him when he reaches prison. Hours before he is due to begin his sentence, he confides his trepidation to Frank, and visualises his first night in prison:
The place is overcrowded - they got bunk beds lined up in the gymnasium to handle the overflow. I'm going in a room with 200 other guys.....So picture his. First night, lights out. The guards are moving out of the space, looking back over their shoulders laughing at me. You are miles from home. Door closes - boom: I'm on the floor; I've got some big guy's knee in my back. I'll give it a little go but they'll be too many of them. Somebody takes a pipe out from under a mattress, starts beating me in the face - not to hurt me, just to knock all my teeth out so I can give him head all out and they don't have to worry about me biting,
Without showing any of this, 25th Hour contributes to the discourse of prison constructed in previous cinematic narratives, where jail is synonymous with sexual assault and interpersonal violence.

These initial scenes, and in the case of 25th Hour the entire film, help to fix the meaning of imprisonment, to frame the discourse of incarceration as cruel and sadistic. However, while such scenes could form part of a critique of prison as a criminal justice sanction - the vindictive and pointlessness of custody - the dominant discourse remains entrenched in the violence itself rather than in denunciation of it.

Many of the 'tag lines' - the soundbites which appears on posters and in trailers further exemplify this: 'On The Inside The Rules Are Brutal And The Stakes Are High' (Animal Factory, dir. Steve Buscemi, 2000); 'Their Graduation Present Was A Trip To Paradise, But They Never Thought They Would Land In Hell' (Brokedown Palace, dir. Jonathan Kaplan, 1999; 'All in Line for a Slice of Devil Pie' (Slam, dir. Marc Levin, 1999).


I do not wish to dwell on detailed accounts of the graphic violence portrayed in virtually all the sample, but its nature and treatment by the texts requires some exploration. I have suggested that the discourse of prison as violent and inhumane not only fixes the meaning of prison at an early stage, but importantly that it is rarely used to critique the role of penality in society. The persistent violence in Animal Factory, Down Time, Fortress II: Re-Entry (dir. Geoff Murphy, 1999), Mean Machine, Prison Song, Under Lock and Key (dir. Henri Charr, 1995) and Undisputed (dir. Walter Hill, 2002) reduces 'the reality of violence into spectacle' (Jarvis 2006: 159). Both the explicit nature of the violence, and its scoptophilic treatment by films in the sample are well illustrated by the first scenes of prison in Mean Machine. After three minutes depicting the arrest of ex-England football star Danny Meehan, the radio announces the news while Meehan is shot. Lit by a red light lying in a police cell:
Newsreader: "Meehan will serve his sentence at Longmarsh high security Prison"

cut to close up of violent fight between two inmates sat at a table, others cheering, then back to close up of Meehan in his cell

Newsreader: "Famous for its rehabilitation programme"

cut back to fight, then back to Meehan

Newsreader: "reformed characters"

cut back to fight and inmates exchanging money, all shown on a CCTV screen in a room where prison officers look on. Cut back to Meehan in cell

Newsreader: "and modern conditions"

Cut to bloodied face and vest of inmate
In addition to set piece brutality - sexual attacks in showers (American History X, Animal Factory, Undisputed and spoken of in The Hurricane (dir. Norman Jewison, 1999)); fights in the dining hall (Brokedown Palace, Fortress II: Re-Entry and Sleepers, for example) and exercise yard (Life, Prison Song, Slam) - violence is represented as casual and frequent. Stabbings, scaldings and slashings occur with such regularity that they become normalised, what Baumann has termed 'the production of moral indifference' (cited in Jarvis 2006: 159).

This indifference towards the brutality in, and indeed of, prison - the silence and absence of challenges to the very existence of prison within the discourse - is replaced, substituted and shrouded by incessant depictions of such violence. This construction of the penal estate is tied in with the second key component of the discourse of incarceration in the sample: the reinforcing of prison as an essential element of the criminal justice.



The prison film narrative in the sample is centred round the inmate , usually one recently convicted. Prison is experienced through the eyes of this individual, such as their entry into the penal system discussed previously. Frequently, the new inmate is constructed sympathetically from the outset. This is achieved in one of three ways. Firstly, and most evidently through their innocence and consequent wrongful conviction (Under Lock and Key, A Letter From Death Row, Brokedown Palace, A Map of the World, The Hurricane). Secondly, where the inmate has committed the crime, the film offers mitigating circumstances such as a crime of passion in Undisputed and Tomorrow La Scala; or self defence / provocation in Prison Song and Chicago (dir. Rob Marshall, 2002). Thirdly, where there are no mitigating circumstances and the individual is guilty, the sentence appears unnecessarily harsh, often delivered by an inscrutable judge shot in close up. For example, Cindy Liggett is given the death penalty for aiding and abetting a botched robbery in Last Dance; and after stealing $5 from a post office and being sent to Alcatraz, Henry Young spends three years in solitary confinement after trying to escape in Murder In The First. The marginal nature of innocence, guilt and its underlying morality is further explored by 25th Hour in which the convicted Monty Brogan's two friends are revealed as a crooked Wall Street stockbroker and a guilty college teacher, seduced by one of his students. These events and revelations occur in the danger-red hue of a packed nightclub to the sounds of the hottest new talent DJ Dusk: the equivocal time between night and day, light and shade, good and evil.

This sympathetic portrayal of inmate protagonists once again offers the possibility for prison film narratives to explore the injustice and cruelty of incarceration. Through the eyes of an innocent, harshly treated woman or man, the penal system could be exposed. Although ostensibly this appears to be present in the discourse of prison constructed in the sample, it is achieved through a process of representing the rest of the prison population as dehumanised monsters and animals, and consequently as "other" (Greer and Jewkes 2005; Hall 1997). While the prison hero/ine is afforded character, emotional development and agency, the rump of the jail is mere cardboard cut-out and cliché. Consequently, prison is constructed as necessary, to keep these psychotic deviants caged and incapacitated. Despite its empathetic portrayal of, on occasion, several inmates, the meaning of prison is once again framed around danger and fear, thus underscoring the apparent necessity for prison's very existence.

Echoing the presence of violence in the sample discussed above, the othering of the inmate population occurs both explicitly and implicitly, and again, early in the exposition of the prison. This occurs in voice-over in Sleepers accompanying a panning shot of the exercise yard:
It was not a group of innocent boys at Wilkinson. Most, if not all, the inmates belonged there, and a number of them were riding out their second and third convictions. All were violent offenders. Few seemed sorry for what they had done. And as for rehabilitation - forget it.
In Tomorrow La Scala, prison officer Kevin stands in front of a metal door and addresses the theatre group who are visiting:
We're going to meet the lifers. These are an entirely different breed to the rest of the prison population. They're in here an average of 12 years, some as long as 20 years and all have committed pretty serious crimes. Point of paramount importance - no fraternising, be friendly but don't be their friend.
There are frequent references to, and reduction of the prison populations to "rapists", "murderers", "animals" and so on. Visually, there is an emphasis on physical form, strength and the potential for violence with inmates regularly depicted with shaved heads in tight vests, tattooed, pushing weights (Animal Factory, Down Time, Slam, Prison Song, Undisputed, American History X and A Letter From Death Row). These often wide, panning shots establish the prison population as an homogenous other. This is complemented by individual, superficial cameos of psychotic monsters, who are defined by the brutality of their crimes, such as The Monk in Mean Machine, Sullivan in Just Cause and John Toombes in Lucky Break. Con Air (dir. Simon West, 1997) offers a pertinent example of all of these elements. The protagonist, Cameron Poe, a highly decorated soldier who, having been convicted of manslaughter after protecting his wife in a fight, is put on a transport plane home with an array of long term inmates being transferred to a maximum security prison. In a scene lasting more than nine minutes, each inmate is shown in slow motion as they are escorted onto the plane accompanied by two helicopters and a phalanx of ten armed guards. For each one, the scene cuts to a CCTV screen with computer graphics detailing their crimes, sentence and life history, this is complemented by an explanation:
US Marshall Larkin: 'This one's done it all - kidnapping, robbery, murder, extortion"

Cut to overhead shot of guards. Cut to close up of bus door opening, cut to close up from ground upwards of Cyrus with helicopter in background.

US Marshall Larkin: 'His name is Cyrus Grissom, aka Cyrus The Virus - 39 years old, 25 of them spent in our institutions'

Cut to close up of his feet with chains in slow motion at ground level

US Marshall Larkin: 'But he bettered himself inside - earned two degrees including his Juris Doctorate. He also killed 11 fellow inmates, incited three riots and escaped twice. Likes to brag that he killed more men than cancer. Cyrus is a poster child for the criminally insane. He is a product of the system.'
This last comment, of prison being to blame for the dehumanising process, does offer an alternative reading of the construction of inmates in the discourse. It could be suggested that the portrayal of the prison population in the sample represents precisely the barbaric nature of prison, and thus this depiction of inmates offers a challenge to the existence of the penal estate. However, for such a discourse to exist, one would need to witness the progression of dehumanization, the mechanistic process of imprisonment which turns a free wo/man into a monster (Mason 2003; 2006b). This counter discourse, a reappropriation of meaning (Hall 1997) does occur in Animal Factory. As the name suggests, the film, written by an ex-inmate is concerned with this very process. New inmate Ron Decker is portrayed as increasingly corrupted by prison drawn into the violence and power structure between inmates, until he eventually escapes. Even if one accepts that the backdrop of superficial characterisation and othering of the prison population is used to reinforce Ron's demise - that all inmates have become like they are because of the system - this counter-strategy is conspicuous by its absence the rest of the sample.
The othering of inmates, through fixing them to their crimes, appearance and difference to the prison hero/ine leads to the construction of a pro-prison discourse. With a prison population constructed as predominantly highly dangerous, morally bereft and beyond redemption, the prison becomes the only institution capable of offering a solution. Further, the representation of the heroic, often innocent inmate appears to offer the possibility of a reformist or abolitionist discourse, but like the depiction of violence, this opportunity is used for the reverse. That process is also present in the final element of the discourse I wish to discuss, the support for the death penalty.

The sample analysed contained six films set on death row and although space precludes any detailed exploration of this element of the discourse, I want to offer some brief points about the representation of execution in these films and how this too is located within a discourse of imprisonment which ultimately supports the institutions of prison and the death penalty. Further, that the discourse here is similarly double-edged to that concerning violence and the representation of inmates. Namely, that while it posits abolition of state killing, its construction of meaning centres around the justification of it.

The discourse analysis of these particular films supports Sarat's argument, that despite the attempt to demonstrate that the death penalty is wrong, the discourse in these films is not one of abolition, nor does it challenge its rationale within the criminal justice system (Sarat 2002). This occurs in two ways in these films. The first is to limit the exploration of the use of the death penalty to whether or not the protagonist is deserving of it. This is explored either through a did-they-didn't-they commit the crime (The Chamber, Dead Man Walking, The Green Mile, The Life of David Gale) or an examination of what Sarat calls 'the calculus of desert (sic)' (Sarat 2002: 213), namely whether the death penalty is the appropriate penalty for the crime committed (Last Dance, A Letter From Death Row). Thus, what appears to be a discursive challenge to state killing, through a sympathetic portrayal of the condemned, is fundamentally a narrow representation which avoids broader questions about the use of executions in contemporary societies. Furthermore, the death penalty is used in the majority of these films to enable the redemption of the protagonist: John Coffey's messianic sacrifice in The Green Mile; David Gale's death to prove the fallibility of the justice system in The Life of David Gale; the redemption of Matthew Poncelet, Sam Cayhall and Arlen Bitterbuck in Dead Man Walking, The Chamber and The Green Mile, respectively.

Secondly, and in contrast with the incessant violence of the other prison films, the executions are fixed at a denotative level. Thus the scenes immediately before the moment of death are concerned with process, administration and system. In echoing Sarat's memorable phrase, 'fetishizing the technology of death' (Sarat 2002: 237), straps, buckles and probes are attached, death warrants are read out and switches are flicked. The stark white rooms in The Chamber, Dead Man Walking, Last Dance and The Life of David Gale communicate the sterile, clinical nature of state executions. The absence of the horror of an execution is replaced by ritual, procedure and bureaucracy which once again, locates the discourse of the death penalty within a framework of legitimacy and necessity.


I began by discussing the increased use of prison as a penal sanction in the UK and how many have seen the punitive turn in criminal justice in recent years as a populist measure. Mathiesen is right to highlight the important role the media plays in this process and it is surprising that so little analysis has been undertaken given the invisibility of prison, the consequent reliance on the media for information about it (Levenson 2001; Mason 2003) and the complex meshing between political and media culture and in particular crime and punishment. The US presidential election defeat of Michael Dukakis to George Bush in 1988, for example, has consistently been linked to the case of William Horton, an inmate serving life imprisonment for murder in Massachusetts, where Dukakis was State Governor (Estrich 1998; Jamieson 1992; Loader 2005; Newburn and Jones 2005). Horton was released for a weekend visit during which he stabbed a man and raped the man's girlfriend. Bush's campaign team launched a negative television campaign against Dukakis in two adverts. The first, contrasting Dukakis' support for the furloughing of inmates with Bush's support for the death penalty; the other suggesting that Dukakis offered a revolving door prison policy, fuelling public fears about crime and their perception of a liberal prison policy.

In the last two British elections, the Conservatives ran similar campaigns. In 2001, their election broadcast portrayed inmates being let out of jail early and committing crimes and suggested this had led to at least two rapes (BBC Online, 15th May 2001) and in 2005 they ran a poster campaign with the slogan 'How would you feel if a bloke on early release attacked your daughter? Are you thinking what we're thinking?' (Mason 2006a).

The discourse analysis of prison films over the last ten years reveals several discursive practices which bolster the support for prison, and arguably its increased use. The graphic and frequent violence and sexual assaults depicted and/or spoken about serve to fix the meaning of imprisonment to such brutality. However, rather than providing a condemnation of the penal system, the brutality remains scoptophilically represented, revelling in the stabbings, rapes and beatings between, and of, inmates. Inmate violence is part of a representational practice which constructs the prison population as inhuman other. Where the inmate hero/ine is depicted sympathetically through their innocence or harsh treatment, this is played out against a backdrop of a prison populated by psychotic, violent and brutal inmates. Such a construction contributes to a cinematic discourse representing prison as the only effective means of incapacitation and punishment. Finally and similarly, films which appear to offer a challenge to the death penalty side step the abolitionist argument and choose instead to concentration upon the suitability of the punishment and its technological aspects, framed within a discourse of bureaucracy.

While this analysis does not attempt to draw any firm conclusions about how such a cinematic discourse of prison may directly impact upon public opinion, it suggests that cultural constructions of prison are an important component of in populist punitiveness of current criminal justice policy. Prison films, as discursive practices, continue to bolster the existence of the prison industrial complex and remain silent on questions of reform and/or abolition of prison. Meanwhile, administrations such as those in the UK and the US remain wedded to an unjust, cruel, inefficient and dysfunctional penal system and consider punitiveness useful political capital.


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1. The one exception in the sample was The Green Mile (dir. Frank Darabont, 1999) in which the central character is Paul Edgecomb, a head prison guard on death row.

2. There is a graphic death in The Green Mile, where a deliberately botched procedure leads to the condemned Eduard Delacroix burning to death in the electric chair. However, Sarat has suggested that this merely suggests that 'there is nothing that decent people should find offensive or gruesome about a "normal" execution' (Sarat 2002: 239).
Film List

Just Cause (1995, dir. Arne Glimcher)

Murder in the First (1995, dir. Marc Rocco)

Under Lock And Key (1995, dir. Henri Charr)

The Chamber (1996, dir. James Foley)

Dead Man Walking (1996, dir. Tim Robbins)

Last Dance (1996, dir. Bruce Beresford)

Sleepers (1996, dir. Barry Levinson)

Con Air (1997, dir. Simon West)

American History X (1998, dir. Tony Kaye)

A Letter From Death Row (1998, dir. Marvin Baker & Bret Michaels)

Slam (1998, Marc Levin)

Brokedown Palace (1999, dir. Jonathan Kaplan)

Fortress 2 (1999, Geoff Murphy)

The Green Mile (1999 , dir. Frank Darabont)

The Hurricane (1999, dir. Norman Jewison)

Life (1999, dir. Ted Demme)

A Map of the World (1999, dir. Scott Elliott)

Animal Factory (2000, dir. Steve Buscemi)

Down Time (2001, dir. Sean Wilson)

Lucky Break (2001, dir. Peter Cattaneo)

Mean Machine (2001, dir. Barry Skolnick)

Prison Song (2001, dir. Darnell Martin)

The 25th Hour (2002, dir. Spike Lee)

Chicago (2002, dir. Rob Marshall)

Tomorrow La Scala! (2002, dir. Francesca Joseph)

Undisputed (2002, Walter Hill)

The Life of David Gale (2003, dir. Alan Parker)

The Longest Yard (2005, dir. Peter Segal)