Public Perception of Corrections

By Freeman, Robert M. | Corrections Today, June 2001 | Go to article overview

Public Perception of Corrections


Freeman, Robert M., Corrections Today


Popular culture is a fantasy-promoting social phenomenon that defines the reality of unknown regions and the nature of their inhabitants for "outsiders." The definition created is grounded in multiple sets of overlapping images that distort reality and promote powerful and pervasive stereotypes. Popular culture is not a recent phenomenon. Ancient mariners were guided in their voyages across uncharted oceans by maps inscribed with a dire warning: "Here There Be Monsters." Mapmakers had no personal knowledge on which to base such a warning, but they believed the oral and written legends that described the mythical monsters lying in wait for unsuspecting travelers. Many sailors accepted this warning and refused to sail uncharted waters.

The times have changed, but the influence of popular culture on the public's perception of unknown regions is stronger than ever. For most citizens, modern corrections is an unknown region. They are "outsiders" whose perception of corrections is created by a popular culture far more sophisticated and technologically powerful than the legends that influenced ancient mapmakers and mariners. This perception is negative because the mapmakers of modern popular culture also warn of the existence of monsters. But these monsters are not mythical beasts hiding in uncharted waters. In the mythology of modern popular culture, correctional employees are the monsters.

The Stereotypes

Popular culture focuses on maximum-security prisons and creates two negative prison stereotypes. The first defines prison as an "Abandon All Hope, Ye Who Enter Here" concrete and steel jungle in which helpless, often likable, inmates endure extreme hardships created by unceasingly brutal, often stupid correctional officers who happily practice sadism as an art form. These officers are ruled by corrupt wardens who are cynical and indifferent to every minimum standard of human decency. The most powerful images promoting this stereotype are presented in classic prison movies such as The Longest Yard, Cool Hand Luke, Riot, Escape From Alcatraz, Brubaker, Runaway Train and The Shawshank Redemption, and B-class films such as Penitentiary and Caged Women. These films evoke audience sympathy for underdog inmates and contempt and revulsion for sadistic prison staff. There is the occasional exception, such as The Green Mile, in which Tom Ranks is a compassionate correctional officer, but Hollywood rarely presents such a positive image of prison staff.

The second negative stereotype, usually presented by elected officials advocating a "get tough on crime" agenda via legislation, is far more subtle. This stereotype defines prison as a luxury resort. The theme is one of incorrigible offenders being pampered through access to a wide range of recreational activities, steak and lobster meals, cable television in their cells, the latest X-rated movies, written pornography and conjugal visits. These amenities contribute to a leisurely break from the criminal lifestyle and a reinvigoration of offenders prior to resuming their careers of public victimization. The role of staff is to ensure that no inmates' needs go unmet. This stereotype rarely is presented by Hollywood because it lacks the essential inmate-as-hero and staff-as-villain conflict that makes classic prison movies exciting and compelling.

Despite their inherent contradiction, these stereotypes exist simultaneously in the collective consciousness of the general public; however, the first stereotype is by far the most corrosive and destructive. Two years after I entered corrections, my college mentor -- a nationally recognized professor of clinical psychology -- said, "I just can't picture you working in a prison. You care too much about people, and have too much to give to be involved in that kind of work." Students and faculty who know me today as chair of a criminal justice department often have said I'm "too nice a guy" to have worked in corrections for 21 years. …

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