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date: 29 September 2023

Prisons in Popular Culturefree

Prisons in Popular Culturefree

  • 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.


  • Crime, Media, and Popular Culture

Punishment, Perceptions, and Prison Imagery

Historically, punishment was a public spectacle. Jails held people awaiting trial or punishment. Imprisonment was not considered to be the way to make people pay for their crimes. During the Age of Enlightenment, theorists such as Cesare Beccaria and Jeremy Bentham reconsidered the purpose of punishment and sought to find more humane and fair ways of responding to these transgressions. Fueled by the ideas of deterrence and utilitarianism, punishment went through a transformation, and in the 18th century, the penitentiary was born. What was predominately a public matter shifted to a secluded setting—behind large stone walls. The closely guarded secrets of penitentiary life were a mystery to most. Interested parties had to rely on second-hand knowledge that came in part from prison imagery. Until the invention of movies, which became the main source of prison tales for much of the 20th century, this imagery was limited. In today’s media culture there are seemingly endless choices; references to prison can be found in nearly every aspect of the media and popular culture—from children’s cartoons, music, and beer bottles to movies, documentaries, and television programs. While not all will influence people’s perceptions equally, each sends unique messages about imprisonment.

Social constructionism argues that the further a topic is removed from our daily lives the more influential symbolic sources of knowledge become (Surette, 2015), which is particularly true of prisons. Most people do not have direct experience with the prison system nor do they know someone who has been incarcerated; therefore, they must rely on the mediated experiences provided by images of these institutions. The lessons they learn from both fictional and non-fictional representations of imprisonment influence their perceptions of what prisons are like, who is in prison, and why, and whether prisons are an appropriate and effective solution to the crime problem. Today it is estimated that Americans consume an average of 15-and-a-half hours of both digital and traditional media per day (Short, N.D.); within this daily consumption there are ample opportunities to learn about life in prison.

While prison references can be found in nearly every aspect of popular culture, not every type of representation holds equal importance. The most prominent and easily accessible images are likely to have the greatest impact on people’s understanding of this complex social institution. There is overlap in how prison is depicted, but the underlying messages are shaped by the genre itself. Some present caricatures of life behind bars, allowing viewers to laugh at some of the worst atrocities faced by prisoners. Others feature the most violent and terrifying inmates, thereby reinforcing punitive beliefs. The diversity of prison imagery today, however, also allows for humanizing and critical examinations of these institutions. The type of media one chooses to consume ultimately shapes their understanding of prison.

Prison Stereotypes in Popular Culture

Popular culture is often guilty of oversimplifying complex issues, the end result of which is the proliferation of stereotypes. Prison imagery is no exception. The two most common prison stereotypes are smug hack and country club corrections (Freeman, 2000). Each of these representations exaggerates and simplifies elements of imprisonment, thereby perpetuating their own misunderstandings about these institutions.

A deplorable prison environment is presented in imagery highlighting the smug hack stereotype (Freeman, 2000). The prison is depicted as incompetent, corrupt, and abusive, and prisoners are subjected to sexual assaults, violence, and discrimination (Surette, 2015). At the core of this representation is the portrayal of correctional officers. While the entire prison is depicted as inhumane, the correctional officers are at the heart of this stereotype. The cruel guard or “smug hack,” popularized in this portrayal of prison life, can be found in most types of prison imagery, creating a common misperception that most correctional officers are abusive. While abuse takes place, it is not a reflection of most of the workforce. This characterization of prison guards provides the requisite tension to craft stories that will hold the audience’s attention. The possibility exists that this type of representation might lead people to develop reformist beliefs; however, the effect is typically negated by the manner in which most inmates are depicted. They are painted as violent and beyond redemption, and might be seen as deserving of cruel treatment.

At the other end of the spectrum is the stereotype of country club corrections. Rather than prisons being places of cruelty and abuse, they are presented as coddling prisoners. Prisons are depicted as easygoing and filled with undeserved privileges (Jewkes, 2002; Marsh, 2009). Ross (2012) traces this correctional myth back to a 1994 article published in Reader’s Digest. Written by Robert James Bidinotto, “Must our Prisons be Resorts?” questions why inmates are given prime rib and conjugal visits; a query that has been repeated often in various forms. For example, in 2004 Martha Stewart served time in a federal prison, which the press commonly referred to as “Camp Cupcake.” Much of the news coverage focused on her doing yoga, and gardening. Reporters commented on her weight loss and how well she looked upon release. The overall message was that she was not punished due to the lax conditions and privileges she was afforded in prison (Cecil, 2007a). The depiction of her incarceration is the essence of country club corrections. Ultimately this type of imagery questions the ability of the prison system to fulfill its promise of punishment.

Perceiving prisons from a smug hack or country club viewpoint has repercussions for people’s understanding of this social institution. In reality, typical prison life is neither of these extremes (Coyle, 2005). It is important to note that these stereotypes are not the only sources feeding people’s misperceptions. The messages contained within the different types of imagery also contribute to people’s social construction of prison. While many of these underlying messages are repeated in nearly every representation of prison life, others are unique to the genre from which the imagery is derived.

Prison Films

For many decades the most common prison imagery was the prison film. Movies such as The Big House (Thalberg & Hill, 1930), Cool Hand Luke (Carroll & Rosenberg, 1967), Escape from Alcatraz (Siegel & Siegel, 1979), and The Shawshank Redemption (Marvin & Darabont, 1994) have given generations a glimpse at prison life. According to Rafter (2006), prison films provide escapism, while entertaining the audience with what is often believed to be an accurate depiction of life behind bars. They tell stories of injustice, and often leave the audience rooting for an inmate hero (Rafter, 2006). One of the most popular prison films, The Shawshank Redemption, traces the journey of Andy Dufresne, who is sentenced to life in prison for a crime he did not commit. Viewers sympathize with Andy as he is abused and root for him as he plans and executes his escape. They are happy when he is reunited with his prison buddy, Red, on a beach in Mexico. While this film was released more than 90 years after Prison Bars (Barnsdale, 1901), the first prison film, it includes many of the core elements found in the earliest movies in this genre of filmmaking—an inmate hero, cruel prison workers and inmates, institutional violence, and an escape.

There is a copious amount of research on Hollywood’s depiction of life behind bars. The first step to examining these movies is to define what constitutes a prison film. Film genres are social constructions (Mason, 2006c); therefore, varying definitions have emerged. Wilson and O’Sullivan (2004) state that “strictly speaking the term ‘prison film’ should include prison film dramas and prison film documentaries” (p. 61), which is the approach taken by Rafter (2006) in her discussion of prison films. Others exclude documentaries and define prison films as those set almost entirely within a prison, with a central theme about imprisonment and its consequences (Cheatwood, 1998; Nellis, 1988), also known as pure prison films (Wilson & O’Sullivan, 2004) or incarceration-related films (Cecil, 2015a). What constitutes a prison film is further shaped by the institutions themselves. Some definitions only include prisons, while others contain films about jails, the death penalty, and prisoners of war. Ultimately the way the genre is defined shapes the discussion at hand. For example, death penalty films typically focus on a small part of the prison and often incorporate someone fighting for exoneration before the execution date. These films are less about prison and more about justice and capital punishment. Their impact on people’s perceptions of prison is not likely to be the same as it would have been watching movies about the general prison population.

Once a “prison film” is operationalized, a classification system is typically developed. Some place films into chronological periods in an effort to examine their development in relation to changes in the actual prison system (e.g., Cecil, 2015a; Cheatwood, 1998; Wilson & O’Sullivan, 2004). Mason (2006c), however, argues that these are “oversimplified taxonomies,” which “serve simply as artificial frames wedged round an ill-fitting pile of prison films which may or may not be justifiably grouped together based on their release date” (p. 196). He criticizes this research as being light on theory; therefore, he offers a framework that combines genre theory with Foucauldian discourse analysis. Overall, chronologically grouping prison films is the more common route taken. Regardless of which approach is used, the literature often discusses the themes and underlying messages found in these films. While some of these aspects are repeated in nearly every movie about prison, as these films developed subtle shifts took place.

Golden Age of Prison Films

First seen during the silent film era, movies about prisons flourished in the U.S. during the 1930s, which has become known as the “golden age” of prison films (Mason, 2006c; Nellis, 1988; Rafter, 2006; Wilson & O’Sullivan, 2004). Due to government restrictions, British filmmakers did not embrace this genre until after World War II (Nellis, 1988; Wilson & O’Sullivan, 2004). During the 1930s more than 60 prison films were produced in Hollywood (Gonthier, 2006), each film presenting a similar plot—a man is unjustly sentenced to prison and he must navigate an environment filled with cruel guards and viscous convicts. Like Andy Dufresne in The Shawshank Redemption, he is framed as a hero, making the audience likely to side with him in his fight against an unfair system. When this new inmate is processed into the prison, he meets with the warden. In these early prison films, he is portrayed as a paternalistic leader of the prison, while in latter films he turns into a “heartless brute” (Rafter, 2006, p. 165). The father-like warden is the voice of reform; he knows that system suffers from serious flaws, but external factors often prevent him from making significant changes. These reform-based messages were a reflection of what was taking place in the actual prison system. It was common for filmmakers to consult actual wardens (Wilson & O’Sullivan, 2004). The medical model was becoming popular during this time. Underlying this model was the belief that crime was similar to a disease; once the cause of criminal behavior was identified a specific treatment could be prescribed. Discussions of reform were abundant in the U.S. prison system and this view was incorporated into prison films through the warden’s views. While he presented an argument in favor of reform (of both the system and the imprisoned men), many of the other prison workers supported punishment as the sole purpose of the prison. The character of the cruel guard or smug hack was introduced in these films. In essence, his brutal ways ensure that punishment is achieved, even when the warden is seeking reformation. An additional core element introduced in these films is an escape or a riot as a major turning point in the storyline (Rafter, 2006). The inmates attempt to achieve justice by revolting against the prison administration or by the inmate hero escaping. Rafter (2006) argues that overall these films tell tales of justice being restored; however, Wilson and O’Sullivan (2004) believe that many are actually about authority being reinstated. It is likely that both are correct. Justice is restored for the inmate hero, while authority is reasserted over the rest of the prison population. While there is a strong reform message in these early prison films, ultimately audience members are told that despite any potential injustices and criticisms of the system, prisons are a social necessity (Cox, 2009); a message that is still prominent is prison films today.

The Development of Prison Films

Popular beliefs, audience desires, technology, and the diversification of the filmmaking industry all have the potential to shape the content of movies, including those about prisons. While the core elements of the quintessential prison film remain untouched, modern films about life behind bars have distinct qualities. One thing that has not changed is that Hollywood remains the main producer of these films. The British prison film tradition began in the 1940s and has developed over the decades with films such as Scum (Parsons, Boyd, Matheson & Clarke, 1979), McVicar (Daltrey & Clegg, 1980), and Greenfingers (Styler, Swords & Hershman, 2000). Yet, as noted by Wilson and O’Sullivan (2004), “the British prison film does not enjoy that high a profile” (p. 24). Other countries, including Brazil, Germany, and Spain, have also released movies about prison; however, none of these countries have established a large catalog of films in this genre. The literature on prison films is a reflection of these differences in production. Most of the research continues to focus on American and British movies.

Golden era films place blame on the system and stress the need for reform. One of the first developments in the genre was to shift the responsibility to the inmates, which took place during the 1940s (Cheatwood, 1998). Films such as Men of San Quentin (Mooney & Beaudine, 1942) highlight the issue of rehabilitation, while simultaneously demonstrating that many of the prisoners are violent men who have done something to deserve imprisonment. By the 1960s the issue of reformation was pushed aside in favor of depicting a more violent inmate population (Cheatwood, 1998). While violence has always been found in prison films, according to Wilson and O’Sullivan (2004), Riot (Castle & Kulik, 1969) marks a turning point in how violence is portrayed in these movies. It depicts the tale of inmates attempting to dig their way to freedom, during which time other prisoners take hold of the prison and a standoff begins. The events that unfold highlight a more brutal inmate culture than previously seen (Wilson & O’Sullivan, 2004). Modern prison films have continued the tradition of depicting a violent prison population and cruel guards—the inmates are super-predators and the guards inflict torture on the inmates (Cecil, 2015a). For example, in Jailbait (Moran, Leonard, Day, Bastian, O’Meara & Leonard, 2004) Jack, an old con, psychologically and physically tortures his young cellmate throughout the entire movie. The film Felon (Tooley & Waugh, 2008), which is based, in part, on actual events, depicts guards orchestrating gladiator fights between inmates in the yard, while threatening to shoot them if they fail to comply. Modern prison films are also much more likely to include prison rape as part of the storyline (Cox, 2009). The level of violence in prison films today serves to support the use of imprisonment. Viewers are still entertained by the story of the inmate hero and can root for his release; however, they witness the utility of an institution that keeps violent men locked away.

There have been additional changes to prison films, including the diversification of the genre and of the inmate population. When prison films first emerged they were novelties (Mason, 2003). With time these movies became familiar to audiences and eventually the genre exhausted itself. The audience became passive, the stories predictable, and these films were no longer taken seriously (Mason, 2003). If one looks at it from this perspective, prison films are now a rarity. Wilson and O’Sullivan (2004) argue that these films have continued to develop by splitting into subgenres; this is where the diversification of prison films comes in to play. After decades of telling the same stories time and again, crafting unique prison tales became difficult (Cecil, 2015a). Filmmakers did not completely abandon these types of stories, instead many chose to tell prison-related tales from other perspectives. In these films, the prison serves as a backdrop for another type of story, including tales of revenge, love, and even martial arts battles (Cecil, 2015a). Viewers are still afforded a peek at institutional life; however, lessons about imprisonment are not prominent. The second development has come in the diversification of the inmates. While minorities are over-represented in the prison population, their stories have been largely absent in films. Cool Hand Luke is the quintessential example. Its depiction of a mostly white prison population is not an accurate reflection of most Southern prisons during that time (Cecil, 2015a). Hollywood itself has changed significantly, resulting in more diverse prison populations being depicted (Cecil, 2015a; Rafter, 2006). In many modern films, race is used to explain divisions in the inmate social system. African American filmmakers have also presented audiences with films about black prisoners. These stories can provide information that is critical to people’s understanding of prison issues; however, most of these movies borrow elements popularized in the early films. In essence, the faces changed, but the stories remain the same.

The “Othering” of Prisoners in the Prison Film Narrative

For over a century viewers have been able to turn to prison films to learn about life behind bars, and in doing so have been confronted by images of those incarcerated. Mason (2006a) believes that it is important to consider how prisoners are constructed in these narratives. While watching these films the audience experiences incarceration from the point of view of the new inmate, who has been wrongly convicted, received an unfair sentence, or has committed a crime under mitigating circumstances. They can relate to this character. He is in sharp contrast to the other prisoners, who are labeled murderers and rapists, and depicted as violent monsters who are immoral and unredeemable (Mason, 2006a, 2006b). Their otherness is further reinforced by their physical appearance (e.g., shaved heads, tattoos, weight lifting, etc.…) (Mason, 2006b). Imagery, music, and dialogue further emphasize the risk these inmates pose. The potential dangers of the prison environment are highlighted when the new inmate talks about his fears or when the guards warn him about the dangers to come. The threat is further implied when he is called “fresh meat” (Mason, 2006b) or met with catcalls as he is taken to his cell for the first time. All of these elements work together to present inmates as being drastically different from the audience; drawing a distinct line between “us” (the audience) and “them” (the inmates), which is what Mason (2006b) refers to as the “othering” of inmates. This depiction of prisoners, who are in sharp contrast to the inmate hero, “leads to the construction of a pro-prison discourse” (Mason, 2006b, p. 618). By framing inmates this way, prisons are seen as an appropriate and effective place to keep those too dangerous to be free in society. It has been noted that popular media frames are commonly reused (Tuchman, 1978). This “othering” of prisoners may have been created in films, but it has been perfected in other types of prison imagery. The idea that most inmates are violent and scary is reinforced time and time again.

Prison on the Small Screen

Fictional representations of prison life are not limited to the big screen; they also fill a small niche in entertainment television. Crime dramas have been popular for decades, entertaining viewers with police and lawyers pursuing justice. The story typically ends with an arrest or conviction, leaving the audience to imagine punishment. These shows occasionally incorporate brief prison or jail views, usually when an investigator or lawyer interviews a suspect or informant. The scene quickly passes, serving as a plot device, not as a story of imprisonment (Yousman, 2009). Fictional prison television shows have been rare in comparison to those portraying the front end of the criminal justice system, yet they do exist. Considered by Wilson and O’Sullivan (2004) to be mainly cult TV shows, they still have the ability to shape people’s perceptions. Some of the most well-known include Porridge (Lotterby, 1974), Oz (Fontana, 1997), Buried (Mattcock, 2003), and Prison Break (Scheuring, 2005), as well as those depicting female prisoners, such as Prisoner: Cell Block H (Flanagan, 1979), Bad Girls (Park, 1999), Wentworth (Crittenden, 2013) and Orange is the New Black (Kohan, 2013). Prison shows can serve as pedagogical tools by offering valuable information about prison and giving a voice to an often unheard population (Jarvis, 2006; Wilson & O’Sullivan, 2004). Since the stories are not required to fit within the constraints of a film, there is a better chance of communicating the nuances of prison life.

Porridge is a 1970s British comedy depicting prisoners and staff in the fictional HMP Slade. While some argue that Porridge is just a source of entertainment, others believe that this lighthearted take on life in prison offered important insight into the inner workings of an institution (Wilson & O’Sullivan, 2004; Jewkes, 2006). It has been cited by many, including ex-prisoners, as a good representation of prison life (Marsh, 2009); however, this type of depiction has limitations. According to Wilson and O’Sullivan (2004), “Porridge constructs a view of prison and its regimes which is intended to approximate, in some way, to an idea of what prison is actually like” (p. 15). Since it is an approximation, certain parts of the system will be excluded or modified; therefore, reality cannot be fully captured (Wilson & O’Sullivan, 2004). In an effort to make people laugh, the darker side of prison is not portrayed. Real conditions, such as suicide and solitary confinement, are not featured (Wilson & O’Sullivan, 2004). This approach does not mean that a show like Porridge does not offer any lessons about institutional life. The lighter side of prison exists, but this type of depiction ultimately works against prison reform. According to Marsh (2009), it “does not encourage the viewing public to think critically about prisons” (p. 373). Porridge is not the only prison program that has taken this approach; others have depicted institutional life as comedic and campy, thereby potentially negating any thoughts of reform.

Two decades after Porridge entertained viewers with its take on prison life, Oz made its debut, becoming the first successful American television show about maximum security. Gone was the lighthearted approach used in many of the earlier televised representations. Rapping (2003) describes Oz as presenting “a vision of hell on earth in which inmates are so depraved and vicious that no sane person could possibly think they should ever again be let loose upon society” (p. 81). Critics and viewers applauded Oz for its realism, believing that they were finally being allowed to see what it is actually like in prison. The ability of a program, such as this one, to demonstrate to viewers the reality of prison life is at the heart of much of the discussion on this show. There is an overall consensus that, similar to Porridge, it is only an approximation of the prison environment. People hold the belief that most prisoners are violent; therefore, Oz’s “realism” is provided by endless scenes of violence, with more than 100 murders, and countless other acts of violence and rape throughout the series (Jarvis, 2006). Jarvis (2006) and others argue that this show demonizes the prison population, but Wilson and O’Sullivan (2004) see it in a different light. By providing background on the prisoners and showing each adhering to a complex prison-based moral code, it serves to humanize them. Yet, with the level of violence constantly reminding viewers that these are dangerous criminals, they may not be likely to see it from that perspective (Cecil, 2015a). Ultimately, Oz is a lesson in fear (Jarvis, 2006; Yousman, 2009). Despite providing some criticisms of the prison system, in the end it offers support for conservative crime control policies through its depiction of violent inmates and the failure of rehabilitation (Yousman, 2009).

Both comedies and dramas about prison life depict the daily routine as entertaining and exciting; prisons are seen as places of nonstop action. In reality, serving time is filled with monotony and boredom. The success of any television program is determined by viewership; therefore, certain aspects of prison life will not be included. Even when real prison issues are addressed, viewers are not motivated to question the system; either the comedy defuses the seriousness of these issues or the violent actions of those behind bars makes viewers apathetic to their plight.

Reality-Based Prison Imagery

When watching fictional representations of prison life, even the most uniformed viewers know that some elements are included exclusively for entertainment value. To see more realistic imagery, they must turn to other sources, such as the news media and documentaries. Prison stories in the news have historically been a rarity. Riots and escapes are considered to be the most newsworthy aspects of prison; since these are not common occurrences, neither is news coverage of these institutions (Chermak, 1998; Lipschultz & Hilt, 2002). When an event is considered to be worthy of coverage it is treated as an isolated instance, which limits the amount of information provided (Yousman, 2009). For more in-depth stories people must turn to documentaries.

Documentary films have existed since the 1930s; however, films documenting prison life did not begin to develop until the 1960s. During this time there was an increased public interest in law and order issues, as well as technological advances that made it easier to film in these institutions (Cecil, 2015a). Most of these early documentary films were not easily accessible or very popular. Today, nothing could be further from the truth. The development of cable television and the Internet have made prison documentaries more plentiful and, in some cases, instantaneously available. Only recently have researchers begun examining this type of prison imagery in detail. Overall, prison documentaries can be divided into two general categories—documentary films and prison documentary series made for television. While there is overlap in the imagery presented, there is some variation in the frames, themes, and messages contained within these two categories of documentaries.

Documentary Films

Documentary films about prisons present in-depth examinations of various issues. Viewers can learn about treatment programs, institutions, historical events, and the daily life of the incarcerated. In general, there are five types of prison documentaries: historical, deterrence-based, treatment-based, investigative, and issue-based (Cecil, 2015a). While this classification is based on American films, British documentaries, such as those by Rex Bloomstein, fit as well. While covering life in prison, each type has a different intention, thereby having the potential to send varying messages about imprisonment.

Historical prison documentaries

Some documentarians create films depicting the history of some of the most famous prisons in the world. These films allow viewers to learn about closed institutions or how other institutions have changed since they were built. For example, before people could take the ferry across the bay to get a firsthand tour of Alcatraz, they could experience it by watching Alcatraz: Island of Hate (Mitchell, 1971). Since then, numerous documentaries have been made about the history of U.S.P. Alcatraz and other institutions. With the exception of films about closed institutions, historical documentaries are no longer common. History is not ignored, instead it has been incorporated into other types of documentaries, becoming a part of a larger storyline rather than the main purpose of the film (Cecil, 2015a).

Deterrence and treatment-based documentaries

Imprisonment is utilized with a variety of intentions. Some prison documentaries focus on this aspect of imprisonment, most commonly reflecting deterrence and rehabilitation. Deterrence-based films use images of prison life to show youth the potential consequences of criminal behavior. Scared Straight (Shapiro & Shapiro, 1978), one of the most well-known prison documentaries of all time, is deterrence-based. This film aired on over 200 television stations across the United States in 1979 (Cavender, 1981). It shocked audience members with scenes of maximum security prisoners teaching delinquent youth about the horrors of life behind bars in order to prevent them from ending up in the prison system themselves. Over three decades later this same formula was used to create the television series Beyond Scared Straight (Shapiro & Coyne, 2011). The programs depicted in deterrence-based documentaries are not meant to serve the needs of those already incarcerated, which is the role of correctional treatment programs. A wide variety of treatment options are available in prison, some of which have been captured by documentarians. These treatment-based prison documentaries feature some of the most unique programs available. For example, Bad Boys of Summer (Haugse, Miler, Mendell & Russell, 2007) gives viewers insight into the San Quentin Giants, a baseball team inside San Quentin Prison. The film shows how this program impacts these incarcerated men. Other films feature art programs, writing programs, college classes, and prison rodeos in both men’s and women’s prisons. These films show a different side of imprisonment than seen in many other prison documentaries. Treatment-based documentary films depict stories of redemption and transformation, and show that rehabilitation is possible (Cecil, 2015a). The imagery is in sharp contrast to the scary parts of prison presented in deterrence-based films.

Investigative and issue-based documentaries

Prison administrators have the ability to restrict media access to their institutions, which has served to limit the amount of information available to the public (Sussman, 2002). Given the lack of knowledge about prisons, early documentarians sought to uncover the truth and crafted investigative films. Similar to investigative journalists, the filmmakers captured stories of scandals and abuse in the prison system (Cecil, 2015a). For example, in Titicut Follies (Wiseman & Wiseman, 1967), filmmaker Frederick Wiseman uncovered the horrendous treatment of mentally ill inmates in the Massachusetts Correctional Institution at Bridgewater. Shortly after its release, this film became caught in a legal battle that lasted for over two decades, keeping it out of the public eye until 1991 (Goodman, 1993). Other films have explored prison riots, the effect of the war on drugs on the prison population, and the impact of serving a life sentence. As prison documentaries developed into televised series and prison officials seemed more willing to allow cameras into the institutions, the investigative quality of these documentaries began to wane. For the most part these films have been replaced with issue-based documentaries that became common during the 21st century. Filmmakers still seek to bring critical prison-related issues to the attention of the public; however, given the accessibility of information on prison today, they are less of an exposé and more of an educational lesson on the current system. These films cover a variety of issues, including the imprisonment binge and its economic impact, the use of solitary confinement, and housing special populations (Cecil, 2015a).

While early in the development of prison documentaries films such as these were difficult to access, today many are aired on public and cable television, increasing the opportunities that people have to learn about the main issues plaguing the current system. Similar to the fictional representations of prison life, documentary films introduce viewers to violent men behind bars. Some borrow heavily from the tradition of presenting prisoners as “others;” however, many of the films provide stories that leave viewers with a multidimensional view of the incarcerated. These types of films have the ability to leave viewers questioning the imprisonment policies popularized during the imprisonment binge.

Televised Prison Documentary Series

The nature of prison documentaries changed dramatically with the expansion of cable television. In the beginning viewers were able to catch a glimpse of life in prison in series such as Investigative Reports and Frontline. Over time it became clear that not only was there interest in these documentaries, but also that there were a variety of stories that could be told; eventually prison documentary series developed. These series are different from documentary films. In order to remain on television, they must achieve ratings through sustained viewership, thus entertainment often trumps education. The History Channel and MSNBC aired the first prison documentary series on television in the United States. The Big House (Miranda, 1998) and Lockup (Drachkovitch, 2005) could not have been more different from one another, the first examining prisons from a historical point of view, the latter a virtual tour of some of the most intimidating maximum security institutions in the United States. While the format of The Big House series was not repeated, Lockup became the design that other shows emulated. It is the quintessential example of prisons as infotainment.

In 2000 Lockup originally appeared in the documentary series MSNBC Investigates and eventually became a standalone program. Today, Lockup is the longest running prison documentary series on television, with its 24th season airing in late 2015. While the producers have shifted their focus to county jails, it remains one of the most popular types of prison imagery available. The original episodes feature a single institution with the host John Segenthaler guiding viewers through their virtual tour. While purporting to unlock the gates to present an unbiased look at life behind bars, the end result is a highly edited version of reality (Cecil & Leitner, 2009). First, only maximum security prisons are featured, despite the fact that only one fourth of U.S. prisons fall into that security level (Cecil & Leitner, 2009). Second, Lockup features a disproportionate number of violent offenders serving long sentences, lifers, and death row inmates. It is filled with stories of violence, gangs, and secure housing units (Cecil & Leitner, 2009). Lockup presents viewers with examples of prisons in the United States; however, by relying on violence and otherness to present the story the show contributes to a misunderstanding of imprisonment in the United States.

The format of the original Lockup placed limitations on the storytelling capabilities. The creators had to craft a story that would fit into approximately 42 minutes of airtime, which was likely a factor in their decision to create Lockup Extended Stay (Drachkovitch, 2007). Each season of this series features one institution, which allows for more in-depth examinations of prison life. Viewers are introduced to a variety of prison workers who take them on an extended tour of inner workings of the institution. Several inmates are featured each season, allowing for deeper knowledge of the complexities of their lives before and during imprisonment. There is still a focus on violence, gangs, and secure housing units; however, more contextual information is given, offering audience members a better understanding of the prison environment (Cecil, 2015a).

The popularity of Lockup and its spinoffs did not go unnoticed. Today one can find a variety of prison documentary series on television. The main stories of imprisonment are commonly repeated, but the emphasis differs. For example, National Geographic’s Hard Time (Henry & Smith, 2009) focuses on various prisons in a single state. Other series have taken a page from treatment-based documentaries by featuring rare inmate programs, such as Louisiana Lockdown (Dugger, 2012) and Ramsay Behind Bars (Gordon, 2012). There are also series on the lives of prisoners’ wives and what it is like to work as a rookie correctional officer. In the end, many of the stories remain the same, but the point of view is altered.

Both documentary films and television series offer viewers insight into life in prison by providing them non-fictional imagery. These too, however, are approximations of prison life. The images captured on film are affected by the unpredictable filming environment and its gatekeepers (Cecil, 2015a). According to Cavender and Fishman (1998), there is essentially a deal made between producers and the gatekeepers, which in this case is the prison administration. Access is granted and in exchange the producers “cannot or will not exercise independent and cultural judgment” (Cavender & Fishman, 1998, p. 11). The reality presented to viewers is further shaped by framing and editing, which are used to craft the stories that unfold before their eyes (Cecil, 2015a). While there is some variation, violence is a common frame through which these stories are told, and the “othering” of prisoners continues.

Gendered Perceptions of Prison Life

Most people think about prison from a male perspective that offers “an exaggerated version of life in men’s institutions, one in which ‘real men’ constantly contend for the prize of masculine physical dominance” and they think of women’s prisons as an anomaly (Britton, 2003, p. 3). In general, the public and policymakers have not paid much attention to the issues surrounding incarcerated women, which is due, in part, to the fact that they make up a small percentage of those incarcerated. Popular culture reflects this reality by mostly producing imagery of male prisoners; therefore, people’s perceptions are heavily influenced by that perspective. In fact, some fictional representations of women’s prisons borrow directly from this male model by inserting women into what is essentially a storyline borrowed from a male-based prison tale. This approach ignores the unique qualities of the incarcerated female population. While this is problematic in and of itself, the other issue lies in the types of women in prison imagery that is the most well-known and popular. While many representations of men’s prisons rely on violence as the frame through which to show their stories, those featuring women have leaned toward sexuality (Britton, 2003; Cecil, 2015a). Sexualizing female prisoners began in the 1960s with exploitation-style films and has been carried over into both fictional and non-fictional modern representations of women behind bars. Viewers are presented with tales of sex behind bars, thereby ignoring the real issues facing incarcerated women.

Babes-Behind-Bars Films

Women in prison films have existed since the silent film era. While these films copy many of the elements popularized in movies about male prisons, including inmate heroes, cruel guards, violence, escapes, and riots, other aspects make them distinctive. Early women in prison films were romantic melodramas (Bouclin, 2009). While weaving the typical tale of an inmate unjustly sent to prison, these films provided lessons on proper female behavior (Cecil, 2015a). These movies reflected popular beliefs by presenting female inmates as emotional and hysterical. Women’s relationships with men are a central part of many of these films. Ultimately these men help the justice-achieved storyline by rescuing the damsel in distress (Cecil, 2015a). These films were the first attempt to depict women in prison; however, they remain relatively unknown in comparison to the films popularized in the latter part of the 20th century. These romantic melodramas were replaced by exploitation-style films (Bouclin, 2009), which have become known as babes-behind-bars films. 99 Women (Towers, Laso, & Franco, 1969) was the first film in this genre. Spanish filmmaker Jess Franco created a film filled with sex, gang rape, brutality, and death; this formula was copied by many other filmmakers. These soft-core pornographic movies that depict women behind bars as being sexually deprived and violent, due in part to being locked away from men, became the most well-known representation of incarcerated females. Films such as these “reinforce society’s stereotypes about female prisoners: that they are violent, worthless, sex crazed monsters totally unworthy of humane treatment” (Clowers, 2001, p. 28).

This tradition has carried over into modern women in prison films. For example, Prison-A-Go-Go! (Epstein & Epstein, 2003) is a musical version of babes-behind-bars, complete with a countdown clock indicating the amount of time until the next shower scene. According to Rafter (2006), women in prison films that appear to diverge from this formula are not new creations, rather they often take a typical men-in-prison plot and substitute female characters, such as in Brokedown Palace (Fields, Juban, & Kaplan, 1999). Some women in prison films have addressed the issue of race behind bars. Stranger Inside (Brown, McKay, Stipe, Ebersole & Dunye, 2001) and Civil Brand (Barnette & Barnette, 2002) depict a more accurate representation of the racial make-up of the female prison population, as well as some of the issues faced by incarcerated women (e.g., abuse); however, in the end the women are portrayed as being as violent as male inmates (Cecil, 2015a). Regardless of the specific type of women in prison film, most rely on sex and violence to entertain the audience, thereby leaving behind most of the reality faced by incarcerated women.


Some of the most popular and long-lasting prison television shows depict women behind bars. In 1979 Prisoner: Cell Block H debuted, airing 692 episodes on Australian television. Its popularity resulted in a follow-up series titled Wentworth, which began in 2013. Shows such as these have provided viewers with exposure to women’s institutions. Similar to other prison shows, in many of these cases entertainment outweighs any pedagogy.

Given the tendency to repeat popular frames, even the most serious attempts at depicting women in prison reuse stereotypes popularized in babes-behind-bars films (Wilson & O’Sullivan, 2004). Prisoner: Cell Block H was made during a time of unrest in the Australian prison system. The creators spent months researching and visiting women’s institutions in order to offer a realistic and serious view of prison (Curthoys & Docker, 1989). Rather than actually giving voice to incarcerated women, however, it “came to be seen as the archetypical camped-up cliché” (Wilson & O’Sullivan, 2004, p. 123). Similar comments can be made about other women in prison dramas, including Bad Girls, which made its UK debut in 1999. According to Wilson and O’Sullivan (2004), “prison dramas need to ‘bribe’ their viewers to engage with any account of the reality of prison and any dramatic product that seeks to ‘give voice to prison,’ must also deliver viewing pleasures” (pp. 123–124). Bad Girls does this by offering audience members the entertainment they seek, while inserting messages about female prisoners. The series sends a message that prison may not be the best response for most of the women, while questioning our ability to reform these institutions. Wilson and O’Sullivan (2004) conclude that Bad Girls “has probably done more than any other prison drama to advance the cause of prison reform” (Wilson & O’Sullivan, 2004, p. 135). This sentiment is echoed in current discussions of the newest prison drama—Orange is the New Black. Based on Piper Kerman’s (2010) bestselling memoir of serving time in federal prison, this program is undeniably the most popular prison show in the United States. Similar to programs before it, Orange is the New Black presents an approximation of the prison environment; yet its storylines have addressed a variety of prison issues. Through its first three seasons it has touched on motherhood, abuse, mental illness, solitary confinement, and privatization of corrections. According to Law (2014), “Orange is the New Black—and Kerman’s determined attempt to link people’s interest in the fictional story to real women’s suffering—has helped get Americans talking about prison in a way few pieces of pop culture have” (para. 5). Popular media has joined the conversation by comparing the issues covered in the program to the reality of incarcerated women. The media is using Orange is the New Black as a springboard to discuss mothers behind bars, mental health, the effect of the war on drugs, and other issues (Cecil, 2015b). But even Orange is the New Black cannot escape the babes-behind-bars influence; it still uses sex to titillate its audience.


Documentaries about women’s prisons are not nearly as common as those about men’s institutions. Documentary films focus on correctional treatment programs and issues unique to the female prison population, such as motherhood and domestic violence (Cecil, 2015a). These films do not rely on the sexuality frame, rather they introduce viewers to the complexity of these women’s lives. On occasion, Lockup and other prison documentary series feature women’s prisons and present tales of violence, sex, and motherhood (Cecil, 2007b, 2015a). Only a few series about women in prison have been created and they have not been long lasting. For example, Breaking Down the Bars (Drachkovitch, 2011) aired for one season, featuring women incarcerated in a medium security in prison in Indiana. Rather than focusing on sex and violence, this series focused on addiction and recovery, as well as anger and transformation (Cecil, 2015a). This type of imagery is critical to people’s understanding of a correctional population that is invisible to most people. It is needed to counteract the damage created by the popular sexualized images presented in babes-behind-bars films.

Stories about women in prison have the ability to bring attention to the “irrationality of prison” (Wilson & O’Sullivan, 2004, p. 121). While many of the stories repeat the sexualizing of female prisoners popularized in babes-behind-bars films, the diversity in the imagery today has explored complex issues related to incarcerated women. Viewers have a better chance of understanding these issues than they did when the only available imagery on women in prison was exploitation-style films.

Modern Prison Imagery

Today mediated experiences of prison life are ingrained in popular culture. Viewers are no longer reliant on fictional Hollywood fantasies to give them insight into these institutions. The variety of prison imagery means that people have ample opportunity to learn about important incarceration-related issues. The moving imagery provided by fictional and non-fictional television shows and films are the most prominent examples of prisons in popular culture, yet representations of prison life can be found in some of the most unexpected places. Caricatures of prison life have been used as a marketing tool to sell beer and wine. Hip-hop and country musicians have used their music to convey stories of the big house and pains of imprisonment (Cecil, 2015a). Prison tours take people through real prisons; however, given that they must meet their guests’ expectations, the experiences are more like a theme park than an actual institution (Brown, 2009). These representations offer people plenty of sources on which to base their social construction of prison.

Modern prison imagery is easily accessible and diverse; however, it is also formulaic. There is a reliance on shock and violence, which ultimately supports current incarceration policies. This formula is a part of mainstream prison imagery. The underlying message is that prisons are a needed and effective crime control method, which should focus on deterrence and incapacitation (Cecil, 2015a). Prisoners are defined by their crimes, which are typically violent, and cast as very different from the viewers. The “othering” of prisoners seen in films is used throughout these mainstream images. According to Mathiesen (2000), the media’s continued focus on those convicted of violent offenses inherently offers the suggestion that prison is the only solution to the crime problem. This type of repeated imagery has the potential to leave viewers scared, shocked, and in favor of retributive crime control policies (Cecil, 2015a). These messages are the fuel of penal populism, which has been argued to be at the root of modern imprisonment policies.

Not all representations of prison follow this formula. Alternatives exist, which present a more humanizing and, at times, critical look at the issues. Prisons are still defined as necessary; however, the need for reform is often highlighted. Rehabilitation, as opposed to deterrence and incapacitation, is at the heart of this imagery (Cecil, 2015a). Rather than defining prisoners solely by their crimes, alternative images humanize prisoners by allowing viewers to learn about their lives and the factors that contributed to their criminal behavior. The line between “us” and “them” becomes less distinct. Viewers may realize that prisoners are not so different from them, even when they commit violent offenses (Cecil, 2015a). The storytelling techniques employed in alternative prison imagery are likely to tug on viewers’ emotions and have the potential to invoke empathy rather than fear (Cecil, 2015a). Rex Bloomstein’s documentaries of British prisoners are an example of alternative imagery. According to Bennett (2006), Bloomstein crafts stories that build empathy by allowing prisoners to tell their own stories. Their tales typically challenge people’s preconceived notions of the incarcerated. Bloomstein’s films are educational and ideological journeys, in which he asks viewers to challenge the ethics of prisons (Bennett, 2006). This is the epitome of alternative prison imagery.

According to Michelle Brown (2009), people “choose when and under what conditions they prefer to see prisons ” (p. 4). Many want to be entertained, not confronted, by the realities of life behind bars. These individuals are most likely consumers of mainstream imagery, which sends messages about the utility of current imprisonment policies. Alternative imagery also has the ability to entertain; however, in doing so it challenges common beliefs about prison and those incarcerated. Ultimately, the social construction of prison is dependent on which mediated experience is selected, and is also likely to be shaped by personal experiences that are unrelated to imprisonment. While we cannot do anything to alter experienced reality, research on the representations of prison life is useful. Regardless of which set of representations people rely on, the information is incomplete; after all, it is only an approximation of the prison world. If people are utilizing this information as the basis for their opinions about the role of prison in modern society, it is critical to understand what is missing from these representations and to find the best ways to convey the issues, so as to offer the potential for a more complete understanding of imprisonment.

Primary Sources

There is a developing body of literature on prisons in popular culture. It is a relatively new area of inquiry, with most of the research taking place in the 21st century. A growing interest in the impact of the media and popular culture on people’s perceptions of crime emerged in the 1990s. Simultaneously, more popular prison imagery was being produced. Early research focused almost exclusively on prison films and has since expanded to include discussions of news, television, documentaries, music, cartoons, and prison tourism.

At the core of much of the literature is social constructionism, which examines representations of prison in order to determine what people are learning about imprisonment. The assumption is made that people’s perceptions of prison will be based on these mediated experiences. In their book Images of Incarceration: Representations of Prison in Film and Television Drama, Wilson and O’Sullivan (2004) examine British and American films and TV programs. They argue that these representations of prison must be taken seriously as they are “an important source of people’s implicit and commonsense understandings of prison” (Wilson & O’Sullivan, 2004, p. 8). At the end of their analysis they contend that while some representations offer little real-world information about these institutions, the prison drama has potential to teach people about prison-related issues. A social constructionist approach has also been utilized to examine news coverage of prison-related issues (e.g., Cecil, 2007a; Chermak, 1998; Vickovic, Griffin, & Fradella, 2013; Yousman, 2009) and reality-based imagery of these institutions (e.g., Cecil, 2007b; Cecil & Leitner, 2009; Cecil, 2015a). This type of research highlights the accuracy of the imagery and considers the underlying messages that may shape people’s perceptions of incarceration. This conversation is often tied to the idea of penal populism, which suggests that harsh incarceration policies were enacted in part due to politicians reacting to public pressure to be tough on crime (Roberts, Stalans, Indermauer, & Hough, 2003; Pratt, 2007). While there are many factors believed to drive this demand, many argue that media representations are a key piece of the puzzle.

Not all of the research is developed from a social constructionist point of view. Cultural criminology goes beyond assessing how prisons are depicted in popular culture. These criminologists present a model “in which media presentations, real-life events, personal perceptions, public policies, and individual actions spiral about each other in a complex, mutually affecting and ever-changing structure of inner-relationships” (Ferrell & Sanders, 1995, p. 308). Michelle Brown’s (2009) The Culture of Punishment: Prison, Society, and Spectacle is an example of this approach. Brown (2009) focuses on the penal spectator, who maintains a social distance from punishment. These observers partake in mediated experiences provided by prison representations and, in doing so, they sanction the pain that is a natural part of imprisonment. In this discussion, Brown (2009) explores not only the media, but also prison tourism and criminological research. Paul Mason’s (2006) edited book Captured by the Media: Prison Discourse in Popular Culture is rooted in discourse analysis. The chapters examine the performance of punishment in a media dominated culture, connecting it to public opinion and policy. Research on prisons in popular culture, its meanings, and potential impact is still in development. Examinations of how people process and respond to this information, as well as its actual effect on their understanding of prison is rare. Ian Jeffrey Ross (2015) has recently developed an analytical framework examining for prison voyeurism, which includes watching non-fictional representations, touring correctional institutions, and even staying in former prisons that have been converted into hotels.

It should be noted that research examining prison imagery is not limited to criminology; it can also be found in media studies and, most recently, philosophy. While there is overlap in these conversations, the exact focus is determined by the discipline from which it is written. For example, David Gonthier looks at movies about prison from a film studies perspective in American Prison Films Since 1930: From The Big House to The Shawshank Redemption. He focuses on establishing prison films as a distinct genre of filmmaking. Examinations such as this one provide information on the intended use of certain classic scenes and plotlines, but do not necessarily examine how these can shape people’s perceptions of imprisonment.

Further Reading

  • Bennett, J. (2014). Repression and revolution: Representations of criminal justice and prisons in recent documentaries. Prison Service Journal, 214, 33–38.
  • Bouclin, S. (2009). Women in prison movies as feminist jurisprudence. Canadian Journal of Women and the Law, 21(1), 19–34.
  • Brown, M. (2009). The culture of punishment: Prison, society, and spectacle. New York: New York University Press.
  • Caster, P. (2008). Prisons, race, and masculinity in twentieth century U.S. literature and film. Columbus: Ohio State University Press.
  • Cecil, D. K. (2015). Prison life in popular culture: From The Big House to Orange is the New Black. Boulder, CO: Lynne Rienner Publishers.
  • Greene, R. & Robin-Greene, R. (Eds.). (2015). Orange is the New Black and Philosophy: Last exit from Litchfield. Chicago: Open Court Publishing.
  • Jarvis, B. (2004). Cruel and unusual: A cultural history of punishment in America. London: Pluto Press.
  • Mason, P. (Ed.). (2006). Captured by the media: Prison discourse in popular culture. Cullompton, U.K.: Willan Publishing.
  • Ogletree, C. J., Jr., & Sarat, A. (Eds.). (2015). Punishment in popular culture. New York: New York University Press.
  • Ross, J. I. (2015). Varieties of prison voyeurism: An analytic/interpretive framework. Prison Journal, 95(3), 397–417.
  • Vickovic, S. G., Griffin, M. L., & Fradella, H. F. (2013). Depictions of correctional officers in newspaper media: An ethnographic content analysis. Criminal Justice Studies, 26(4), 455–477.
  • Wilson, D. & O’Sullivan, S. (2004). Images of incarceration in film and television drama. Winchester, U.K.: Waterside Press.
  • Yousman, B. (2013). Revisiting Hall’s encoding/decoding model: Ex-prisoners respond to television representations of incarceration. Review of Education, Pedagogy, and Culture, 35(3), 197–216.


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