Corrections' Public Relations Dilemma: A Good PR Plan Can Effectively Counter Negative Public Perceptions

By Fairchild, Brian | Corrections Today, February 1998 | Go to article overview

Corrections' Public Relations Dilemma: A Good PR Plan Can Effectively Counter Negative Public Perceptions


Fairchild, Brian, Corrections Today


In the movie "The Shawshank Redemption," the warden of Shawshank Prison embezzles money, kills inmates and destroys evidence that would have set an innocent man free. In "Natural Born Killers," Tommy Lee Jones plays the sadistic warden of Stateville Correctional Center in Illinois who erupts into violence at the slightest provocation. And who can forget the prison officers in "The Fugitive," who completely abandoned their responsibilities at the first sign of danger?

In fact, it's hard to remember a prison movie made in the last decade that didn't portray correctional officers as psychopaths, and the prison system in general as corrupt. Negative, stereotypical images of prisons and those who work in them often seem to condemn the entire industry in the court of public opinion.

It's difficult enough making the tough decisions in corrections without struggling through the negative feelings others may hold for your profession. And to the extent that people have a negative view of corrections, even small misconceptions can delay the evolution of good correctional programming.

As corrections professionals, should we be concerned about this? Does the corrections industry have a public relations problem? And if so, what can we do about it?

Public Perceptions

We all understand how negative perceptions can damage product sales in a marketplace. Look at the murders from cyanide placed in Tylenol capsules in the 1980s, or the deaths in Bhopal, India, that severely damaged the international image of Union Carbide, or the wreck of the Exxon Valdez.

There is no doubt these tragedies cost their respective companies billions of dollars, regardless of how responsible they were for the incidents in the first place. Could similar situations in prisons across the United States be costing prison systems the political capital needed to do business in the public sector?

A recent opinion poll in the popular Sunday newspaper magazine Parade recounted the results of a survey aimed at defining what Americans thought were the most important issues of the times. According to the survey, a strong family unit and the need for effective educational opportunities for our children were top priorities. Other concerns dealt with positive, proactive public policies that impacted our future. The one negative conclusion of the survey was the public's overall distrust and disapproval of law enforcement.

Unfortunately, the public sees police, prosecutors, and jails or prisons as a kind of monolithic system. They all are lumped together and, according to the survey, a significant majority of the people don't like how the system is working.

Other well-crafted studies echo these results. A recent survey of public opinion conducted by the Florida Department of Corrections indicated widespread misunderstanding of correctional operations by the public and news media in that state. (See "What Does the Public Really Think?" page 26).

Media Misconceptions

As a public information officer in Illinois, I have encountered numerous examples of media misconceptions about correctional programs. After a homicide at a psychiatric unit, a radio reporter asked me if our psych unit was like the one from "One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest." He went on almost gleefully about drugged inmates and all the Hollywood depictions he remembered from the movie.

Most correctional workers across the country also are familiar with the now infamous Richard Speck tape shown nationally on the A&E cable network. Speck - a notorious inmate who was convicted of the murders of eight student nurses in the 1960s - was videotaped having sex with another inmate and doing what appeared to be drugs inside one of Illinois' maximum security prisons. (See "Sex, Lies and Videotape," page 34).

In both cases, the impact of these individual incidents never would have been so harmful had the public not already disapproved of the criminal justice system. …

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