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The prisons outside and the prisons in our heads: Television and the *representation of incarceration

William Yousman, University of Massachusetts Amherst


During the latter part of the twentieth century, the prison population in the United States rose to unprecedented levels. Despite the increasingly powerful impact that the penal system has on U.S. society, prisons and prisoners are virtually invisible in television news. Simultaneously, however, prisons and prisoners are frequently the focus of fictional narratives in both television and film. Films such as The Shawshank Redemption, The Green Mile, and Con-Air have been successful Hollywood products in recent years. On television, prisoners are frequently seen in many popular crime dramas such as Law and Order and NYPD Blue. Cable television offers a serial drama set entirely in a maximum-security prison, Oz. This dissertation explores the nature of U.S. television portrayals of prisons and prisoners. The argument is made that these representations are the raw material from which most viewers forge their conceptions of prison life and prisoners. Years ago, Lippmann (1922) argued that the media help to create a “pseudo-environment” in people's minds. Audiences may believe that they possess knowledge about places, people, and events that they have never experienced, and the “pictures in our heads” may not accurately reflect the “world outside” due to media filtering and distortions. Because most audience members probably have little personal experience with prisons or prisoners, our primary sources of images of incarceration are television programs and films. In the following chapters an initial statement of the need for this research is followed by a review of the relevant theoretical and empirical literature. After introducing several research questions, a description of the methods employed to respond to those questions is offered. The next two chapters examine local television news coverage of prisons and prisoners and national network news about incarceration. Then four prime time crime dramas are analyzed in regard to their images of prisons and prisoners, and the subsequent chapter discusses the prison series, Oz. In the conclusion results are summarized and thoughts on the social significance of the material covered are offered, as well as a discussion of the limitations of this project and suggestions for future research.

Subject Area

Mass media|American studies|Criminology

Recommended Citation

Yousman, William, "The prisons outside and the prisons in our heads: Television and the *representation of incarceration" (2004). Doctoral Dissertations Available from Proquest. AAI3136799.