Depiction of Prison Environment in Prison Films and Television

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Table of contents

  1. Adjusting to Prison Culture
  2. Deprivation Model
  3. Importation Model

Many prison films continually repeat shots of inmates doing repetitive tasks together. This acts as a reminder to those watching of the everyday routine of prison (Mason, 2003). In the film Shawshank, there are many scenes that relate prisons to the idea of a machine. Prison as a machine as defined by Mason is the depiction of the prison system as a highly structured movement and management of prisoners (2003). In the film, this mechanistic property is evident when prisoners are first taken into the walls of Shawshank. In an early scene when Andy arrived at Shawshank, new prisoners as soon as they entered the walls were stripped of their personal clothing and belongings and forced to shower nude in front of the new prisoners and the guards. This dehumanizing process acts as a way to strip new inmates of their individuality and rather turn them into numbers (Cesaroni, 2019; Mason, 2003). The significance of this dehumanizing machine is to center how the prison control’s the bodies who are in it (Cesaroni, 2019; Mason, 2003).

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In addition to the dehumanization of the individual upon entering the prison, inmates are faced with constant routine (Marvin, 1994). In the mornings, all cell doors are opened at once, a routine head count is conducted, and everyone moves together. This depiction of a machine symbolizes the idea of prisoners as “fuel” to the machine (Mason, 2003, Marvin, 1994). All the tasks done in Shawshank are done at the same time, if one prisoner stops working, the machine stops working (Marvin, 1994). As soon as the machine stops working due to one prisoner slacking off, they get beaten by the prison guards and the machine starts back up (Marvin, 1994). A scene at 1:39:00 confirms the idea of prison as a machine when Andy is locked in solitary confinement for saying he will no longer look after the wardens banking (Marvin, 1994). Andy says “I’m done, everything stops, get someone else to run your scams”, and the warden follows with “nothing stops, nothing”. (Marvin, 1994, 1:39:00). It is the impenetrable set of rules and regulations that highligh the fight for survival symbolizing prison as a machine (O’Sullivan, 2001; Mason, 2003). When prisoners attempt to break these rules and regulations, they are seen as defects in the machine and are punished for stopping the machine from working. The rules and regulations in addition to symbolizing a machine influence prison culture and the adjustment prisoners must make to become labourers of the machine.

Adjusting to Prison Culture

Adjustment and integration to prison culture is something every inmate has to face. As Stojkovic & Lovell (1998) explain, the prisonization ordeal or effect is the process by which values and traditions are stripped away from new inmates and replaced by the broader prison culture. This prison culture influences individuals in different ways. Factors such as ethnicity, age, personality, relationships outside of prison, and affiliation with prison groups all affect the degree that prison culture influences inmates (Stojkovic & Lovell, 1998; Tewksbury, 2014). Wheeler’s (1961) U-shaped curve attempts to expand upon the idea of the prisonization effect theorized by Donald Clemmer (Cesaroni, 2019). Wheeler suggests that the levels of inmate conformity develop a U-shaped curve, where a greater conformity to the prison culture in early and late stages of confinement is best achieved when inmates are most distanced from societal norms (Cesaroni, 2019; Wheeler, 1961). Due to both Clemmer and Wheeler’s suggestion that there are differing levels of prisonization, two distinct theoretical models were developed to explain inmate’s conformity to prison culture.

Deprivation Model

The deprivation model, which is most closely associated with the work of Sykes, focuses its attention on the influence of prison specific variables (Thomas, 1977). Deprivation theory suggests that it is the prison environment that encourages deviant behaviour within an institutional setting (Tewksbury, 2014). It is the depriving conditions of the prison itself which causes the associated difficulties and creates resulting coping mechanisms (Cesaroni, 2019; Thomas, 1977). The assumption with the deprivation model is that the depersonalizing and dehumanizing effects of being inducted into prison deprives individuals of their pre-existing traditions and norms (Thomas, 1977; Wheeler, 1961). This theory argues that subculture integration is a resulting coping mechanism to deal with the pains of imprisonment (Stojkovic & Lovell, 1998; Thomas, 1977).

Importation Model

Importation theory’s main principle is to analyze the factors and characteristics held by inmates prior to incarceration (Tewksbury, 2014). These factors influence inmate’s behaviour while incarcerated (Tewksbury, 2014). This theory argues that individuals “import” values and social experiences with them upon entering prison. These values and experiences can include subculture ideologies, discrimination, and economic deprivation (Tewksbury, 2014). It is these values that are believed to have a substantial impact on inmate’s behaviours while in prison. Inmates pre-prison experiences in the outside world are pivotal in understanding the social system of prison (Cesaroni, 2019).

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