Magazine article Corrections Forum

The Public Image of Corrections: Myth vs. Reality

Magazine article Corrections Forum

The Public Image of Corrections: Myth vs. Reality

Article excerpt

Ten years after leaving the Pennsylvania Department of Corrections, I continue to be amazed, and annoyed, by the reaction of people when they find out I was employed in corrections for 21 years. The typical comment, "But you seem like such a nice guy," reflects a common public perception that correctional employees can not be "nice guys." Instead, they must be something else. That something else is the sleazy warden in The Longest Yard, the mirrored sunglass wearing Straw Boss in Cool Hand Luke, and the brutal, corrupt and stupid guards in The Shawshank Redemption. These stereotypes form the core of a social phenomenon known as the popular culture of corrections.

The popular culture presents to the general public conflicting sets of negative correctional stereotypes.

The first, and most powerful, set of stereotypes is of brutal prisons peopled by helpless inmates at the mercy of guards who are frequently more subhuman than the worse inmate. Sadism and psychological coercion are the hallmark of the brutal correctional staff. The second, much less frequently presented, set of stereotypes is of a country club prison in which inmates enjoy a life of luxury denied the average taxpayer and bleeding heart correctional staff are primarily present for the purpose of catering to the inmates' every need. Regardless of which set of stereotypes is presented; the result is a negative public perception of corrections that does an injustice to tens of thousands of corrections professionals.

Why is the powerful imagery of negative correctional stereotypes so widely accepted by much of the general public?

The most frequent response to that question from correction professionals is twofold: bad press from a sensationalizing news media and distorted reality created by a profit hungry Hollywood. But this response is only part of the answer. The explanation for the negative public perception of corrections is much more complicated. The popular culture of corrections is the result of a 250 year process of negative stereotyping in which the negative elements of correctional history (flogging, chain gangs, brutality and a deliberate indifference to inmate basic needs) are given an enduring vitality that overwhelms the positive elements present in correctional history. This enduring vitality is initially created by stereotypical Hollywood accounts of correctional life being reinforced by news media coverage of negative correctional history and current employee misconduct and scandals. …

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