The Culture of Punishment

Examining the role of popular culture in shaping America’s policy of mass incarceration.

Alcatraz Broadway
Looking down Broadway at Alcatraz.

The United States is the undisputed world leader in incarceration, with 2.3 million citizens in prison and more than 7 million under some form of criminal justice supervision. Tellingly, the majority of Americans — especially those “penal spectators” who are far removed from the experience of imprisonment — have embraced mass incarceration as a response to dealing with crime, without necessarily contemplating the justification for and implications of such a radical public policy.

In the new book “The Culture of Punishment” (NYU Press), criminologist Michelle Brown—an assistant professor in the Department of Sociology and Anthropology at Ohio University—considers the intersection between culture and punishment, where “much of the popular knowledge about punishment is constructed.” Brown takes readers to the places where punishment is most likely to be accessed, including film, television, and the unfailingly popular prison tour, providing unique insights into how and why America has become the most punitive nation on earth.

Failure interviewed Brown to learn more about the consequences of mass incarceration, the challenges of getting Americans to reflect on the country’s approach to punishment, and to find out how her students react when given the opportunity to visit a death chamber.

What prompted you to write “The Culture of Punishment”?

The idea developed across time, but once I began pursuing a degree in criminology it became clear that punishment was overlooked—not just theoretically but culturally. During the past ten years, I’ve spent a lot of time in prisons doing work with both prisoners and staff, and I became fascinated with the engagements between the people with whom I was interacting and what I was seeing in popular culture.

Why doesn’t society-at-large understand the challenges of day-to-day life inside a prison?

It’s the nature of prisons. They are secretive institutions. But if [ordinary] people were in prison day in and day out, they’d see that it’s mundane and boring, as well as fairly dysfunctional and tragic. It wouldn’t fit a lot of what we imagine in connection with it.

Since most citizens never experience imprisonment, how can we get individuals to reflect on and understand its consequences?

Where I like to position it is in people’s everyday lives. We’re all engaging in tactics that are punitive and we all invoke punishment in work environments. If people come to recognize the way they are coming up against punishment in their own lives, they begin to see themselves less as a potential victim, and more as someone caught up in a lot of social controls. If they move toward that framework they can better understand how someone who is incarcerated would experience that even more intensively.

Does the fact that there’s a prison industrial complex encourage policies that lead to ever-more Americans being incarcerated?

There is a supply and demand issue. If they build it they will try and fill it. In Ohio they built a supermax [Ohio State Penitentiary] in the northern part of the state and couldn’t fill it, so they moved death row there and contracted out to other states.

Because of the economic crisis we are finally going to see some limits in terms of prison construction and the population, but that’s not a questioning or challenging of how we punish.

There is something about punishment that is unique. Once it gets moving—both economically and culturally—it’s hard to shift away from it. It takes on a sense of permanence.

Should we be having a public debate about whether it’s wise to have more than two million citizens locked up?

Absolutely. As I and others have pointed out, it’s one of the biggest civil rights issues we face in our society. There is no politician that is going to run on the idea that we need to have this discussion, but it was embedded in the Obama campaign with its emphasis on prisoner re-entry and the closing of the war prisons. I’m not sure it has been mobilized in any effective way yet, but the change in administrations was in some ways a potential moment.

Are we are where we’re at today in part due to the failure of rehabilitation?

Science played a role in where we are, but rehabilitation didn’t disappear because of science alone; there was also a cultural and political shift [that began in the 1970s]. When liberal and conservative values merged in a critique of rehabilitation, somehow the more punitive conservative critique came out stronger, and I think liberals are still struggling with how to frame [the debate] in a way that doesn’t sound like an excuse—or being soft on crime.

While a lot of programs have moved away from rehabilitation, it’s still there in a lot of places. And if you talk to people who work in these settings, it’s still highly effective. [The failure of rehabilitation] is one of those myths that circulate in popular culture among people who are distanced from reality.

What are some of the hidden collateral consequences of mass incarceration?

They are all over the map, but we didn’t anticipate a lot of the effects of the war on drugs and sentencing restructuring. Nobody thought we’d imprison more than two million citizens. And we didn’t anticipate the impact on individuals imprisoned for long periods of time for drug offenses and other non-violent crimes. The effects are incredibly dismal in terms of lifetime trajectory. Along with the hard line came restrictions on where returning offenders could live and what social services they could access. In the state of Ohio, in terms of employment, there are over 400 licensure restrictions. Many of the occupational restrictions are occupations for which [prisoners] are being trained.

Meanwhile, one of the other things we’ve been grappling with is that entire families are hard hit, not just the individual who is imprisoned. More than two million children are impacted by incarceration through their parents. Also, in terms of how families are organized, when you have a community that is hard hit by crime and punishment it makes the community really vulnerable, as there aren’t a lot of ways to build formal or informal social supports.

Even those who are distanced from punishment and think they have few connections to it—largely a white middle class—are changed as well. Everyone is being impacted on some level, even if it is simply in the reordering of democracy or the restricting of the ways in which we think about punishment. And that’s not even getting into the costs that states are up against now in maintaining a system of mass incarceration.

What are some of the ways we might go about reversing this trend?

For a long time criminologists have been referring to this historical moment when we hit a tipping point where punishment became more problematic than helpful. But it’s very easy for a culture to maintain its punitiveness and be hard line in its approach to crime, because that has a certain logic to it.

But even among the most punitive you still see discussions about rehabilitation, and you can persuade people by pointing out the way in which the logic fails. One of the things we live with in criminology is that individuals are more likely to commit crimes after they have been in prison than before. Once people recognize this, they are better able to imagine alternatives. The people most able to do this are those who live and work in prisons and the communities that surround them.

But our culture has a long history of turning punitive rather quickly. It will take time [to reverse this trend], and it’s something we are not even near at the moment, but any effort to humanize or bring a certain amount of reality to the way we punish is important.

How did you go about researching the portrayal of prisons in the media? It seems like an overwhelming task.

[Laughs]. It was part of my dissertation. I started with prison films and spent a very dark time watching all of them. But by the time I got to the book I knew it was going to be a lot more than just films. Over time I started watching across media for strategies related to punishment.

What makes The Shawshank Redemption the quintessential prison film?

That’s something I’ve thought about a lot. I did research at the prison where it was filmed [Ohio State Reformatory], and that’s one of the sites that is open for tours. I work with students all the time who say it is their most beloved film. But very little of it is about imprisonment. And one of the things that disturbs me is what it means for an audience to adore that film and think that it shows them something about prison. For me it’s one of those movies that have this lovely amnesia. I can see why it’s good and why it’s epic, but I hope I never see it again [laughs].

What is prison tourism and why are prison tours so popular?

Prison tours allow people to access institutions that they normally can’t or won’t visit because of security issues and things that make it difficult to access functioning institutions. You can open the doors to a defunct prison and people will pay to come in.

I’m torn because I would like these institutions to be preserved. They are important memorials to how we punish. But I also believe we haven’t gotten the structure down in a way that seriously challenges anyone. The folks who run the tours that are most successful—Alcatraz and Eastern State Penitentiary—will tell you that right away. They walk a line between spectacle and education.

How are tours of Alcatraz and Eastern State different from a tour of an active prison?

Both are bound up with spectacle. But when you go into a live prison there are prisoners looking back at you. Even if they are only looking, you have to engage. There’s a different level of accountability in terms of how you are interacting in that space so it’s a stronger encounter. The problem with that encounter is that it’s generally very short—an hour to two hours—and carefully constructed, framed purely in terms of security.

It’s only over time where you see any real transformation in people’s assumptions and attitudes about punishment. In most cases, a quick tour simply reaffirms whatever perspective you go in with.

What are the best and worst experiences you’ve had inside a prison?

The best experience I’ve had was designing and teaching a course with university students and incarcerated inmates in the same class together.

The most disturbing experience I’ve had involved a student from my upper level punishment course. My students have the opportunity to tour a maximum security facility and go inside the death chamber. One student—a criminology major who wanted to become a judge—jumped onto the death gurney. He said if he was going to be a judge, he wanted to have the perspective of an inmate who was condemned to die. My own take on that is that it’s really superficial to assume you’ve got that perspective.

I’ve also taken students into the execution chamber and had them pass out, because it’s such an intense space.

Do you feel like the prison system is impossible to reform?

I’m not necessarily an abolitionist. There may be good reasons to have prisons, and there may be cases where we have to confine certain individuals. But that should be an absolute last resort, as prison is a fundamentally dysfunctional failed institution. It cannot do the things we have identified for it to do. It can only incapacitate and hold people. If that’s our purpose—okay. But we should be questioning when and why that is necessary, because that involves only a small minority of the current population. For the majority of people there are alternative structures to help deal with the issues they’re up against, whether it’s drug abuse, drug dealing, or economic problems. There are all sorts of ways to rebuild communities and rebuild lives in ways that are not as destructive—for them or for us. 

So I don’t think the answer is prison reform. At the same time, you don’t leave 2.3 million-plus people in institutions without trying to do something.

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