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date: 22 January 2021

Prisons in Popular Culturelocked

  • Dawn K. CecilDawn K. CecilUSF St. Petersburg


Popular culture has the ability to entertain and, on some level, educate. People’s perceptions and understanding of an issue can be influenced by the images and messages contained within common representations. According to social constructionism, the further a subject is removed from our day-to-day lives, the more important second-hand knowledge becomes in shaping perceptions. Prisons are a prime example. These institutions are not a part of most people’s lives; therefore, they must rely on information gathered from other sources to come to an understanding of these complex social institutions. Many turn to popular prison imagery to be entertained and in doing so they may be taking away lessons about imprisonment. By relying on the mediated experiences provided by representations of prison in popular culture, they are likely to have an incomplete and, perhaps, inaccurate perception of institutional life.

Early images of prison were limited, however, today there is an abundance. The first popular prison imagery came in the form of Hollywood films, which gave audience members a glimpse of the prison routine, while following the journey of a new inmate. While these movies are the most iconic images of prison, in today’s media landscape representations of prison life can be found in a variety of places. Most often they are depicted in entertainment and infotainment-type programming on television, but can also be seen in documentary films and represented in various other aspects of popular culture, including music and cartoons. There is a growing body of literature that discusses these depictions. This research examines the accuracy of the portrayals and identifies underlying messages about crime and punishment, which provides vital information on how people come to understand prison in a media culture. Stereotypes and caricatures abound; however, one can also find important messages about prisoners, prison life, and ultimately the role of prison in society. Overwhelmingly people are subjected to images of violent men and women locked up, where their violent behavior continues, which ultimately sends a message that prison is a social necessity. Examining these popular representations of prison allows us to begin to understand the potential impact this imagery has on people’s perceptions of these institutions in modern society.

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