The Culture of Punishment

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

The Culture of Punishment

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.

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