Research Communications

The Culture of Punishment 

Sociologist Michelle Brown explores how popular portrayals of crime and prison mislead the American public

June 17, 2010

Teaching students at Rockville State Penitentiary, the largest women’s correctional facility in Indiana, gave Michelle Brown new insight into punishment. Brown, a then-graduate student in criminology who had previously worked in a women’s shelter, observed prisons as institutions filled with boredom, isolation, alienation, and overcrowding. Prisons didn’t look like they did on TV and in movies—areas Brown had studied as an undergraduate in comparative literature and film—or in the public imagination. Prisoners weren’t attacking each other or starting riots. Brown became intrigued by the disconnect between this reality and the inaccurate media portrayals of incarceration as harsh and dehumanizing.

Brown, now an associate professor of sociology and anthropology at Ohio University, has spent her career exploring this phenomenon. Her interests in media, pop culture, and punishment intersect in her new book on the topic, The Culture of Punishment: Prison, Society, and Spectacle (New York University Press). The book explores how everything from the movie The Shawshank Redemption to tours of prisons, such as Eastern State Penitentiary in Philadelphia, impact the punishment policy in the United States.

The publication of the book solidifies Brown’s reputation as one of the leading scholars in cultural criminology, says Jeff Ferrell, professor of sociology at Texas Christian University and editor of New York University Press’s Alternative Criminology Series, which published Brown’s book.

“Michelle’s work is really brilliant because she takes the most important of issues—punishment, torture, and prison— and looks at why they are (something) the public would support and how people claim to know about it,” he says. “She looks at how the meaning of crime and punishment is formed and why we do what we do.”

Photo Credit: Rick Fatica

The average American learns about prison by watching TV and movies. Shows such as Law & Order or documentaries such as Lockup give the public narrow insight into punishment. Take Law & Order; detectives commonly joke with suspects about rape in prison, and many of the most repulsive criminals end up murdered by cellmates. But prison life isn’t one violent episode after another, Brown says.

Still, this imagery becomes intertwined with the public’s understanding of crime and punishment.

“It gives them a spectacle, and it gives them a special authority that they are in the know,” Brown explains. “I think there is a large, white middle class that has the power to shape criminal policy, but they are the most distant (from prisons and punishment).”

Oftentimes, however, those who are most vocal about punishment—including Americans who vote on crime and incarceration issues—don’t know anyone embroiled in the system.

In the United States, imprisonment occurs along racial and class lines. The criminal and victim blend together in the public mind because they’re often from the same backgrounds, Brown explains in the book. And because voters and politicians assume that prisoners are violent, they have no problem banishing criminals to a place where they will become victims of violence. Brown notes, however, that more than half of those incarcerated are nonviolent criminals.

Fear often motivates the voting public to act. Myths about crime are widespread; people fear strangers breaking into their homes and attacking them. According to the Department of Justice, however, spouses or partners (former or current) killed two-thirds of all women murdered by guns. But laws and punishments are more severe for a stranger-on-stranger attack than domestic violence.

“(We) need a more accountable media and a new way of seeing punishment,” Brown says. “We need a democratic context in how we handle this debate and hear voices that are different from the mainstream.”
As one of several examples, Brown deconstructs the much-loved prison movie The Shawshank Redemption. She explains that the movie focuses on prison clichés—an innocent man is wrongly convicted, brutalized, and raped, yet transcends and forges a friendship with a conman with a heart of gold. Perhaps the most unrealistic aspect is the ending where the hero, Andy Dufresne, escapes to a beach. Brown notes that in this movie, the prison exists simply as a backdrop to a story about relationships.

“Because Shawshank presents us with an experience of prison where transcendence is inevitable, it too is easy for its audience. We easily identify with our protagonists and, in getting to know them, suffer with them, and cheer their escape and reunion. Yet in turning back to real prisons, the logic and rhetoric of retribution persist. We have taken no journeys with the imprisoned who remain locked in,” she writes.

While Brown’s focus on media has added to the academic debate, it is her examination of prison tourism that has sparked the most discussion in her field, Ferrell notes. Since graduate school, Brown has toured both operating and closed prisons, attending haunted houses, ghost hunts, and historical tours.

Within the past two decades, historical societies have salvaged large, defunct prisons, turning them into sites for tours, which focus on ghosts, famous prisoners, violence, and sometimes history.

In her chapter on prison tourism, Brown notes that even if administrators of prisons (such as the West Virginia Penitentiary, Eastern State Penitentiary in Philadelphia, and the Ohio State Reformatory) want to include social or historical context in their tours, the public clamors for the spectacle.

Haunted houses—which sensationalize prisons with mad doctors, insane prisoners, and sadistic guards—and ghost hunts—where participants spend the night locked in the prison looking for the supernatural—are the best-selling events at these facilities.

Without historical and social context, such as an understanding of real prison life and how incarceration affects the larger society, the tours simply reinforce misconceptions of punishment.

Brown believes, however, that the public’s fascination with prisons and violence shows that people want to talk about the issues. She advocates tours that encourage the public to be civically engaged instead of simply promoting spectatorship.

As for what role academic research should play in the matter, Brown offers some caution. She notes that over the last four decades, some social science work has contributed to the problem of mass incarceration.
She highlights the controversial 1974 publication by Robert Martinson, “What Works. Questions and Answers about Prison Reform.” After examining an exhaustive amount of literature about various re-entry and rehabilitation programs, Martinson made the assessment that “nothing works” to rehabilitate prisoners.

In the following years, politicians threw out the idea of rehab and instead focused on punishment and isolation. Even when Martinson tried to reframe his debate to argue some therapeutic policies do work, the public largely ignored him.

“Punitiveness is easy and it makes sense,” Brown says. “Any attempt to punish is fundamentally about the infliction of pain,” she says. “Why are we so punitive? Is it American exceptionalism? Because we’re so individualistic? In American culture we’ve made it a natural response to be punitive.”

The culture of punishment also persists because a politician’s stand on crime can make or break a career, Brown’s book notes. The infamous “Willie Horton” ads of the 1988 presidential campaign suggested that Democratic candidate Michael Dukakis allowed Massachusetts prisons to be a revolving door for criminals who could re-enter society and commit more crimes. Instead of defending his policies, Dukakis tried to argue that his competitor, Republican George H.W. Bush, was soft on crime as well. (Dukakis, of course, lost.)

Brown notes that there are other, better ways of holding criminals accountable for their crimes, and if the public were aware of these methods, people might support them. She urges more community participation in the penal system as part of a movement known as restorative justice. Restorative justice encourages dialogue between criminals, victims, and the community in the hopes of holding the criminals accountable in a humane way while also providing the victims with the resources they need.

She points to the example of citizens’ circles. Social service workers, mental health professionals, drug and alcohol counselors, children’s services employees, correctional administrators and employees, students, and other concerned citizens form a voluntary group that helps prisoners re-enter society by assisting them with finding jobs and housing and reconnecting with family.

While the economy, health care, or the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq might seem like more pressing issues in the United States, Americans will need to address problems with punishment soon. As state budgets shrink and incarceration rates continue to climb, states find they need to release prisoners because they cannot afford to house them.

“We’ve clearly failed in our own system of finding good ways of being responsible,” Brown says. “Making accountability meaningful, making sure that victims have what they need, and giving the community a role to play is important.”

By Meghan Holohan

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