Prison in the Pop Culture of the West
By RAMSEY BADEN | August 13, 2017
The prison system is a stark and prominent facet of Western society. In the last century, popular culture has turned its attention to a rapidly expanding prison-industrial complex that has incarcerated over 2.3 million people in the United States alone. More citizens than ever before have become aware of a system that was designed to remove itself from public attention; the response to incarceration has never been more diverse.
One of the most popular examples of prison in pop culture is the Netflix series Orange is the New Black. The show’s first season premiered in 2013 to critical acclaim. The show, as well as the memoir by Piper Kerman that it is based on, have sparked a number of debates. In 2013, a Washington Post reporter called Orange “the best TV show about prison ever made,” citing its accurate depiction of many parts of prison life. In contrast, an author for the Huffington Post described the show as a misrepresentation of women in prison, pointing out that 6 out of 10 women in prison are there for non-violent drug offenses and that most women in prison have children under 18 years old. The author describes the show as one that strays from reality because the truth is less sensational than the stories the show can tell. Another writer for Indiewire took a middle-of-the-road stance on the show, describing it as a catalyst for the discussion of pertinent issues while also decrying its initial focus a white woman’s perspective in a system that disproportionately imprisons racial minorities. The show does not look to be going away any time soon: In 2016, after the release of the show’s fourth season, Netflix announced that it had been renewed for another three seasons. This is the result of its strong Nielsen ratings, which show that 6.7 million viewers saw the series’ fourth season premiere in June. Orange is the New Black is still one of the most-watched television programs in the United States, pointing to the public’s significant interest in prison-related stories.
Orange is certainly not alone in its use of prison as a setting, but most of television has approached prison in a very different way. Prison Break, a popular show depicting the daring escape of two wrongfully imprisoned brothers, was popular enough to warrant a limited fifth season renewal from Fox. The fifth season premiered in 2017 to mixed reviews – most critics saw the plot of the latest season as one that managed to “bore while beggaring belief,” even though the show had once been hailed for its ability to “tap the horrors of prison life to create a suspenseful thriller.” This statement from the New York Times makes it clear that Prison Break is very much an exercise in fantasy – its tale of governmental conspiracy and tattooed prison plans is a far cry from the attempts that shows like Orange is the New Black make to bring attention to important topics. Prison Break and its counterparts are designed as stories rather than social commentaries, and they perpetuate presumptions about the prison system rather than bringing attention to its truths.
While film and television are still the most popular venues for the representation of prison, there are other areas of pop culture that shed light on public fascination with the prison system. Prison Architect is a game by British developer Introversion Studios in which the player takes on the role of financing, building, organizing, and ultimately selling different private prisons. The game begins by tasking the player with building an execution chamber. As the player does so, the CEO of the prison-building corporation that the player works for says, "It's not our place to decide if he deserves this. The law has made that decision. We're just here to do a job."
Many commenters have criticized the game for being an unethical way to look at a system that affects millions of real lives every day. They argue that its “gameplay” glorifies the for-profit prison industry and turns debates about prisoner’s rights into virtual tasks that detach players from responsibility. Others have responded to these criticisms, remarking that it is hardly an escape and that players of the game will “feel its teeth.” Some point to Introversion Software’s previous games as evidence that the studio intentionally makes morally-questionable games to challenge players. They argue that Prison Architect, in turn, is a slow-burn criticism of prisons that proves their inhumanity and severe fallibility, making the player “part of the problem” to teach lessons about the system. Further muddying the issue is game designer Chris Delay’s statement that his team wasn’t “aiming to make the player deeply uncomfortable” but that they weren’t going to make a prison game “without dealing with a lot of the issues that occur in prisons.” While the ethics of the game have been debated, the indie game’s success has not—by 2015, Prison Architect had earned more than $19 million for the studio from the sale of over 1.25 million copies.
This is a mere handful of instances where Western culture has molded and distorted the public’s perception of the prison system. The creators of prison films, shows, games, and novels have painted their own pictures of what prison is like, and they have done so with varying degrees of success. Most of them lack the perspective of those who have actually been in the system (or who are still in it today), and as a result they have spawned harmful stereotypes about the system that are very distant from reality. Perhaps this is seen most clearly in the example of a board game titled Don’t Drop the Soap, which was designed in 2008 by the son of former Kansas governor Kathleen Sebelius for a project at RISD. Popular culture has begun to recognize the changes and obstacles in the prison system, but there is a very long road ahead for truthful prison representation.
This is not entirely the fault of the creators. The prison system has strictly limited the access that journalists and others have to it, preventing those on the outside from seeing what it truly is. And the story does not end there, either. Recent initiatives like a fellowship called Right of Return are being formed to empower formerly-imprisoned artists. They will work towards enhancing and rectifying the public’s understanding of prison. By doing so, they will seek to fight for the rights of the imprisoned and rectify the prison system itself.
As our popular culture continues to evolve, Western consumers will vote with their wallets to shape the way prison is represented in the future.