A Crisis of Representation? The Prison Film Under Incapacitation

Michelle Brown, Indiana University

Many criminologists have argued that, since the 1970's, the practice and philosophy of punishment has entered a period of crisis. The century's dominant ideological frameworks for punishment - rehabilitation and reform - are widely thought to have failed in practice, culminating in a political and philosophical vacuum concerning the meaning and justifications for punishment. Some argue that this shift has led to the emergence of correctional discourses and practices centered upn custody and surveillance, a "new penology" whose managerialist/risk assessment approach to punishment is predicted upon the increased use of incarceration and incapacitation programs as well as a massive expansion of the modern prison system. This paper seeks to address how broadly this "crisis" is apparent in U.S. culture by surveying media representations of contemporary punishment. In order to access broader, cultural notions of imprisonment, I look to the places where the social constructions of imprisonment are most likely to be experienced with the highest degree of public access: film and television. Here, I plan to map transformations in prison and prisoner representations from the late 1960s through to the present in an attempt to evaluate whether this notion of "penological crisis" has achieved expression in American culture.

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Updated 05/20/2006