Crime, media and popular culture II: prison films
Prisons and the media
There is plenty of evidence to suggest that media coverage of prisons, both in
Britain and elsewhere, has contributed to public misinformation about prison.
o Law films can be more creative (different images) – prison films more
Tend to follow the same story.
o The way the media represents issues around imprisonment and
prisoners contributes to a more punitive attitude by the public.
Narrow and hard for us to form a different opinion.
Contributes to an idea that crime is random and that we‟re all at
risk and have to be fearful (overrepresentation).
While prison escapes, riots and the seemingly ever-increasing prison
population are keenly reported by the British news media, an equally
pervasive source of prison imagery is the prison film.
o Prison films draw on stock standard images and narratives.
o They have social impacts on the viewer, which can lead the viewer to
have particular responses about prisons, etc.
The prison film
However, many „prison films‟ are not about prison all but can be read
allegorically – as a metaphor for disempowerment, injustice and isolation (the
genre sky rocketed during the 1930s).
Incarceration can also function as a backdrop for tales about individual
perseverance and the indomitable human spirit, whereby the viewer is
encouraged to empathise with the convicted offender and share in the highs
and lows of their journey of self-discovery.
o Need to read them for their symbolic messages that aren‟t explicit.
o Become vehicles for generating what causes/motivates criminals and
whether they are born that way or if it is a product of society.
o Mobilise different explanations.
o Can function as a backdrop for other stories.
Representations of the prison film as a machine is fundamental for it is from
this metaphor that other themes flow: „escape from the machine, riot against
the machine, the role of the machine in processing and rehabilitating inmates,
and entering the machine from the free world as an inmate.
Prison films purport to reveal the brutalities of incarceration while actually
offering viewers escape from the miseries of daily life through adventure and
heroism. Presenting tales in which justice is miraculously restored after long
periods of harsh oppression, prison movies enable us to believe, if only
briefly, in a world where long-suffering virtue is rewarded.
o Like crime films, there are a very limited number of characters, plots
and themes to be found in prison films.
o Offer us an escape from the miseries of daily life – voyeuristic
experience from our couch about prisons and prisoners.
o Some of the stories we see are wrongly convicted or well liked
criminal that comes out a reformed individual.
Stock characters, plots and themes Stock characters: convict buddies, a paternalistic warden, a cruel guard, a
craven snitch, a bloodthirsty convict, and a young hero;
o The Big House (1930)
o The Criminal Code (1931)
o I am a Fugitive from a Chain Gang (1932)
o Each Dawn I Die (1939)
Stock characters – riot/escape, inmate and prison officer violence, wrongful
o Rebellion against injustice
o Control – who controls whom and what being under someone else‟s
o Gap between appearance and reality
Example – Birdman of Alcatraz (1962):
o Starring Burt Lancaster
o Fictionalised version of the life of Robert Stroud who committed
murder in Alaska.
o Heroic masculinity
o Inhumane punishment
o Real life character was a merciless killer
Example – Cool Hand Luke (1967):
o Starred Paul Newman
o Obvious hero character – arrested for stealing money from parking
o Sadistic warden
o Offer the viewer an opportunity to participate vicariously in perfect
friendships between men
Example – The Shawshank Redemption (1994):
o Starring Tim Robbins as Andy Dufresne and Morgan Freeman as Ellis
o Dufresne spends nearly 2 decades in Shawshank state prison for a
murder based on circumstantial evidence
o Focus is on his friendship with Red
o Andy provides tax and financial services to the warden and other
o Andy escapes after learning that another prisoner confessed to the
crime and when the warden refused to help him get a retrial
o Red is finally released after serving 40 years of his life sentence and is
reunited with Andy in Mexico.
Why the genre flourished given its formulaic characters, plots and themes
The answer lies in the opportunities prison movies offer us:
o To identify with a perfect man or