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A Narrative of Control

Mass incarceration rests on false narratives that carceral institutions themselves control. But some of us are fighting back.


Gary Fields, in trying to gain access to a prison for a 2012 story for the Wall Street Journal, wrote that “each prison is a fiefdom.” Wardens are feudal lords, guards their militia, and prisoners the serfs. While rules govern each prison, and the penal system at large loosely controls the collective of prisons in a state, there is still some autonomy among wardens. Their main cohesion, however, can be found where the flow of information is concerned. In this way, the penal narrative is as much a wall keeping out the public as it is keeping prisoners incarcerated.

Contrary to popular belief, state and federal prisons are public institutions. They are supposed to be governed by constitutional protections such as freedom of the press and the prohibition against cruel and unusual punishment. But Supreme Court rulings over the last thirty-five years have eroded these checks against state power. As a result, what occurs on the inside is often hidden from the public; when stories of abuse leak out, riots occur, and prisoners or staff die, the public is left wondering why.

Prisons are controls for the marginalized, hidden behind the curtain of tough-on-crime rhetoric, manipulated by the stigma of a criminal act that suppresses one’s humanity. Film, television, and the media help maintain that curtain. Viewers are unlikely to realize the exact forces at play behind the narrative of control in The Green Mile or Oz. Rather, they consume a singular philosophy: criminals deserve to be punished. Prison serves as that punishment. And what’s wrong with retribution against the wicked? Prisons make neighborhoods safer, right?

No. That logic would imply that mass incarceration “works,” thereby making the United States the safest country in the world. It is not.

The problem with the narrative of control is that it narrowly focuses on one aspect of behavior—crime—to the exclusion of all other environmental and social influences. This narrative carries all the way through the politics of crime, criminal legal policies, and public institutions such as schools. The media echoes and amplifies it. Hollywood glorifies it. In turn, the public consumes, internalizes, and bases its understanding of incarcerated people on it. Any attempt to dissolve the carceral state must challenge and change the crime control narrative to one of crime prevention, equal justice, and accountability.

Prison life does not neatly fit into movie and TV archetypes. Television shows about prison often depict scenes of the rec yard, where everyone is cliqued up by race or gang. This may be a semi-accurate illustration of a California prison like Folsom or a New York prison like Sing Sing, but it’s in no way a representative sample of all prisons. Yes, gangs are a growing problem in prison, but not for staff as much as for the ordinary prisoners trying to do the right thing to get home. But even this is subject to variation. While some gangs do raise the threat of violence, sometimes they impose order, acting as sub-controls beneath those of the prison.

This, too, is part of the crime control narrative. But if the information provided is tailored to make prison officials look good and prisoners bad, in leaving out prisoner perspectives it fails to answer a very basic question: Why have gangs proliferated in prisons? The crime control/penal narrative response is that criminals are opportunists who resist sanction and violate laws in any environment. The reality is closer to the way that gangs proliferate in poor neighborhoods and schools where economic and educational advancement are limited, and law enforcement uses brute force to maintain control. The same is true in prison: officials allow idle time and a lack of education to be filled with sub-organizations, which swiftly fill gaps in leadership.

You will not glean these factors from the movies and TV shows that glorify and venerate law enforcement. Authors of these screenplays are typically limited in their access to information: they are shown the stories prison officials want them to tell. The same is true of journalists. The counternarrative would expose the overwhelming failure of crime control and its disconnect from reality. It attributes responsibility to prison officials for the problems in their facilities. On a more basic level, the counternarrative expects prison officials to correct behavior and guide rehabilitation through positive reinforcement and education. Even dog trainers will tell you coercive control isn’t as effective as positive reinforcement.

There’s a lot of nuance in the differences between prisons. Prior to the reinstatement of Pell Grants for prisoners in the 2020 FAFSA Simplification Act, New York prisoners had greater access to higher education than incarcerated people in most other state. Some prisons, like Angola in Louisiana, are modern-day plantations, primarily full of Black and brown people. Some are minimum security, like the women’s prison in Orange Is the New Black. Others are maximum security, like the one depicted in The Shawshank Redemption. This variation matters because of both the experience it provides to the incarcerated and the legislation derived from people leaving and returning to prison. Violent prisons breed violent recidivists. Gang-infested prisons breed more gangs in and out of prisons. Similarly, greater learning opportunities, mental health services, and job training on the inside create more productive reentering citizens and fewer recidivists.

Unfortunately, television shows and movies depict violent crime as a crusade of good against evil, where law enforcement officers are usually the “good guys” and judges, defense attorneys, and other elected officials are the personifications of truth, justice, and U.S. ideals. Suggesting that militarized police are responsible for innocent civilian deaths or that too many people are in prison as a result of overpoliced BIPOC communities is a counternarrative. Arguing that judges who were once prosecutors are incapable of giving defendants a fair hearing because they have an implicit bias challenges the established narrative of judicial impartiality. Suggesting that sheriff’s deputies contribute to in-custody jail deaths as a regular part of their criminal negligence is, in many circles, worth creating laws to hide. Holding criminal legal system actors accountable in the light of public scrutiny also means explaining how those actions are part of the mainstream narrative and common responses to crime and punishment. Without a counterbalance to that narrative, those public officials are rarely held accountable even to the standard ordinary citizens must follow. Because there is not a strong enough counternarrative exposing bad actors in the criminal legal system, the crime control narrative creates a double standard: accountability is for the underclass, but not the ruling one.

More than half of U.S. broadcast network dramas are focused on cops. What they don’t show is the fruits of their labor: overcrowded prisons. They glorify crime control while denigrating and devaluing those on the receiving end of “justice.” Law and order are upheld, the bad guy gets killed, and the audience is sated on disinformation.

Is it any wonder, considering this steady diet of crime dramas, that when George Floyd and countless other Black and brown people are publicly murdered by law enforcement, many Americans are skeptical about the role of racial injustice? Or that, in response, they would in fact double down on law-and-order rhetoric or pursue confirmation of their biases in online echo chambers? Prisons themselves are a longstanding, physical extension of that willful ignorance.

The widely circulated video footage of Floyd and others murdered at the hands of police raises a new question for abolitionists: Would televising prisoner executions lead to similar outrage and action? Let’s say executions were broadcast on the nightly news. First, the condemned would appear strapped to a gurney, IV in arm (crotch or leg if he or she had difficult veins.) The warden reads off the crimes and names the victims and, after asking if he or she had any last words, the warden signals to begin the lethal injection. It probably wouldn’t make for prime-time coverage though, because a botched execution can take over an hour to kill, exposing the fact that the condemned do in fact visibly suffer. I’m sure there would be commentators to dramatize the event, with cut-away interviews and suspense over potential last-minute reprieves. It still probably wouldn’t impact abolitionist efforts though, because, let’s face it, how many innocent men, women, and children have been killed by law enforcement, captured on video, and widely circulated online before large swaths of the United States expressed moral outrage?

Executions were originally removed from public view because they incite greater violence, which isn’t a good look for civilized capitalism. The spectacle itself reveals the heavy hand of control over the marginalized. Prison came in to tame the more barbarous practices of corporal punishment and fill the void left by abolition of slavery.

But the root of this flawed logic still pervades this country—found now in the prison itself, disappeared from public sight, behind the veneer of law and order. But between the indoctrination of the crime control narrative, mass shootings, and vitriolic disinformation tweeted by Donald Trump, the stage is set, and public executions could very well make a comeback in the modern era. As George Orwell would say:

War is peace.
Freedom is slavery.
Ignorance is strength.

I don’t think executions should occur at all, let alone on TV. But I do believe that the press should have unrestricted access to prisons and the people therein. The only way to counter the narrative of control is by injecting perspective into the conversation. Show the public what really occurs in prisons. It is the purpose of the fourth estate to act as a check upon, and balance to, the judicial, executive, and legislative branches. These powers converge in the policies of mass incarceration. Without the media to examine their impact at every level, and without a check against some of the more egregious abuses against people in confinement, prisons will remain black holes where information and people disappear.

When people do reappear, crippled by their experiences on the inside, many in the public seem not to understand why. Because their information about prison isn’t based in reality, but a one-sided, dramatized version of it. Here are some basics you should know about prison, ones you won’t find in fictionalized and sanitized state-sponsored narratives:

  • Ninety percent of those who go in come out, many of them worse off than when they entered. Many prisons lack robust educational programs, and the time spent away from the job market compounds their lack of skills, while collateral consequences of a felony record make it incredibly hard to earn a livable wage or even find a place to live. Prison reentry programs are not only insufficient, but inaccessible to many.
  • Most people who go to prison are ordinary citizens who made mistakes rooted in economic instability. These factors are exacerbated by systemic racism, classism, and the criminalization of mental illness. Most television viewers are likely a paycheck or two away from having a great deal in common with those they see demonized on TV.
  • Over half of all prisoners have experienced some form of mental illness, like depressive episodes or addiction, while at least 20 percent suffer from a serious psychological disorder. People in U.S. prisons almost universally lack adequate access to mental health care.
  • Most people in prison want to do better, but prison officials lack the personnel, training, resources, and motivation to prevent violence on the inside. A lack of access to adequate education, resources, and second chances solidify a similar fate upon release.

Much of the above relates to prison officials never being held accountable, reliance upon misinformation/disinformation to establish criminal justice policy, and an often-indifferent public that fails to recognize prisons are their responsibility, too. Neglecting that responsibility has contributed to mass incarceration and the highest recidivism rate in the world.

Prison journalism is one concrete step I’m taking to counter the narrative of control. My experiences and those of others within the criminal punishment system generate a deeper understanding of which policies do or don’t work. My skill as a writer and opportunities to speak with the public are what enable me to convey that understanding, and to challenge the narrative presented on TV and in film. Critical thinkers must question what they’re accustomed to hearing about crime control and public safety, dig deeper than the rhetoric, and seek out the facts wherever they can be found.

Excerpted from Witness: An Insider’s Narrative of the Carceral State. Copyright © 2024 by Lyle C. May. Reprinted with permission from Haymarket Books.

Image: Jared B./Unsplash