In his famed work Discipline and Punish, the French philosopher Michel Foucault outlines how prison was designed to make punishment invisible, hiding it away from the rest of the population.
Channel 4’s Prison Night, which aired in the UK recently, confirmed that the television screen is as close as many people get to experiencing prison. The programme addressed how “accurate” prison films are, interviewing a handful of former prisoners as judges. Channel 4 also asked inmates to vote for their favourite prison movie.
I, too, am interested in how audiences interpret prison pop culture. I’m currently working with ex-offenders to explore how they understand US prison texts, whether Hollywood films about chain gangs, poems from Guantanamo Bay or memoirs from death row. The US prison system is, in many ways, unique and hence warrants scrutiny. With its vast numbers of prisoners, harsh sentences and (arguably) discriminatory justice system, it’s American exceptionalism gone awry. The UK offenders I am speaking to are clearly aware of this; one young man contended that he would have received a life sentence by now if he had lived in the US.
Films are popular among our research participants; they regularly connect our conversations about America (including concepts such as the American Dream and liberty) to films. Our contributors are especially interested in those films with a “true life” element, such as Escape from Alcatraz and I Am a Fugitive from a Chain Gang. I’m also informed that “true crime” books are the most borrowed from prison libraries.
Our group also has debated how prison films may “fall down” in terms of realism. Prison life is, in fact, often banal and monotonous, so it comes as no surprise that directors exercise artistic license and add drama to make prison movies appeal to mainstream audiences.
Escape from Alcatraz was filmed on the island itself, and followed the “true” tale of escapees Frank Morris and the Anglin brothers. But the group I’m working with suggest that the popularity of Escape from Alcatraz is also entrenched in its intrinsic defiance of “the system”.
Foucault stresses how the modern-day prison system seeks control of the inmate’s psyche as well as their physical body. Any act of rebellion or disobedience (riots, escape or mind games with authority figures) offer prisoners an opportunity to defy their docile status and reclaim their autonomy, even if only temporarily. This explains the popularity of Alcatraz: Morris, played by Clint Eastwood, is representative of the stock prison-hero character, who struggles with an immoral warden or head guard.
The Shawshank Redemption
But it was The Shawshank Redemption that won the number one spot on the Prison Night list, and our participants were similarly enthusiastic, calling it “amazing” and claiming that “even if you have seen it before, you always want to sit and watch it again”. The group praised the film for capturing the “utterly terrifying” moment that you arrive in a prison for the first time, “when you hear that door slam and sit in your cell crying”.
The film follows the incarceration of Andy, a middle-class white banker and his developing friendship with an African American inmate, Red. After nearly two decades of life within an unforgiving institution, we witness Andy escape in remarkable circumstances and Red finally defy his parole board. In discussing the “reality” of Shawshank, one participant sympathised with Red’s statement that rehabilitation is “just a made-up word” because “once you are in the system, it’s so easy to remain there”.
Yet the scene in which The Shawshank Redemption’s fictional prisoners get to drink beers on the rooftop was deemed “laughable” by our contributors; it seems that we tend to overlook the film’s unrealistic elements in favour of its feel-good factor. Similarly, prisoners of different race and class would arguably not have mixed so readily in real-life 1940s America.
The Green Mile, which won second place on the Prison Night poll – and is, like Shawshank, based on a Stephen King narrative – is similarly memorable for its fantastical elements. The fact that these two movies were so high on Prison Night’s popularity rankings implies that while inmates like tales based on true events, realism is not always a vital criteria.
One of the Shawshank Redemption clips shown on Prison Night suggests that “hope” is another small means of resisting docility. Indeed, one of our participants noted that hope is “something the system can’t take away from you; if you have hope in your head, then it makes you less of a prisoner.”
Our group nevertheless agreed that hope is unfeasible in some circumstances, notably under controversial Imprisonment for Public Protection (IPP) punishments. These UK indeterminate sentences were abolished in 2012, though several thousand prisoners remain under such rulings. For IPP inmates, hope may “fuck you up”, you “can’t allow yourself to hope”.
While my ultimate aim is to generate discussion on American (prison) society and culture that I can analyse wearing my academic hat, I also wanted part of each weekly group to be dedicated to creative writing. To this end, the groups are led by Russ Litten, a novelist and former writer-in-residence at a local prison. The therapeutic power of reading groups for prisoners is well-documented; scholars argue that such meetings are important for acquiring practical skills and life-awareness aptitudes.
Similarly, creative writing in prison has been linked to reducing re-offending. Such logic arguably applies to ex-offenders, too. As Prison Night acknowledges in some of its interesting individual testimonies, leaving prison is difficult. But as the programme attests, the act of watching movies, of engaging with any culturally creative act, can help, even in a small way. And so we return once again, to Shawshank’s message of hope.
Josephine Metcalf receives funding from the British Academy.