Prison Policy in a Media-driven America

It doesn't matter where you live. It makes no difference what your education, age, gender or income is. Within any demographic group, people who watch a lot of television are more afraid of crime than people who don't.

According to studies by communications professor George Gerbner, people who watch more TV are more likely to believe that their neighborhoods are unsafe, to state that fear of crime is a very serious personal problem and to go out and buy new locks, watchdogs and guns for protection.

And if you think these people are just better informed, think again. No matter what the neighborhood, heavier television viewers are also more likely to overstate their chances of involvement in violence and to assume that crime is on the rise, regardless of the local facts.

This unjustified level of panic among TV viewers makes perfect sense. Gerbner explains that people who watch just a moderate amount of primetime television drama are "entertained" by an average of 21 violent criminals each week, who (together with the "good guys") commit approximately 150 acts of violence, including 15 murders.

If television make-believe can influence Americans' level of anxiety, perhaps it also influences their views on prison policy. Ever wonder why a person could support a justice system that boasts the highest incarceration rate in the world, at a cost of billions of dollars to taxpayers each year, despite the fact that violent crime is down and two-thirds of prisoners are actually locked up for nonviolent offenses? Just consider the world that media consumers are confronted with every day.

Hardasses or Hard Copy?

Reality shows like America's Most Wanted paint the nation as filled to the brim with depraved murderers, brutal serial rapists and career con artists -- all with callous indifference to their ever-increasing stream of victims.

Dramas like Law and Order, CSI and NYPD Blue leave viewers expecting to find a body no matter what corner they turn. Police and victims are depicted as having to battle against a mountainous number of unfair technicalities and uncaring defense attorneys, while alleged perpetrators are most often shown to be common thugs.

Even shows like The Practice -- which sends the radical message that any person accused of a crime deserves a good defense -- also send the message that any person accused of a crime gets a good defense. Lawyers from the program's expensive private law firm constantly take on the cases of indigent defendants, getting them acquitted from all sorts of charges even though the lawyers, clients and viewing audience all know the person is guilty.

Our "objective," "neutral" and "balanced" mainstream news doesn't do much to correct this slanted image of the world either. In fact, most television news works to actually increase America's culture of fear.

If it Bleeds, it Leads

Paul Klite, the late Executive Director of Rocky Mountain Media Watch (RMMW), once pointed out that "Murder, one of the least common crimes, is the number one topic on newscasts." According to the group Children Now, while the homicide rate dropped 33% during the period between 1990 and 1998, news coverage of homicides actually increased by 473%.

An RMMW study of local TV newscasts across the country shows that 40-50% of all news airtime is devoted to violent topics. It's little wonder that heavy television viewers are more afraid of crime than less frequent viewers in the same demographic.

Children Now recommends that parents speak with their kids about the levels of violent crime reported in the news and explain to them that crime reporting is not accurate representation of reality. Perhaps parents should speak with their adult friends, neighbors, co-workers and relatives as well.

Anyone working for progressive prison reform has undoubtedly run up against individuals with a "lock 'em up and throw away the key" attitude. We should keep in mind that this position -- while not necessarily well thought out from a public policy perspective -- does seem understandable for a person that believes violent indifference and criminal brutality are pandemic.

The fact that newspapers like The New York Times, Boston Globe and Los Angeles Times have all used the phrase "country club prison" in headlines also makes the calls for more harsher punishment for prisoners seem somewhat reasonable.

The Idle, Carefree Life of the Prisoner

The prison coverage by Fox News several years back was not atypical. It aired James Fotis of the Law Enforcement Alliance of America stating that "some prisons are like hotels." Guests on the show highlighted prisoners' access to perks like television, videos and tennis courts.

A report that aired multiple times on 20/20 in the 1990s which, according to host Hugh Downes, was about "thieves, child molesters, [and] murderers" suing prisons over "petty gripes," quoted an Attorney General explaining the situation quite clearly:

"What we've got here is a system in this country where prisoners -- the worst of the worst of our society -- have been given special privileges across the board. They get free everything."

You almost expect the next exposé to be about people trying to get into prison. Never mind being locked away from one's family, told when to eat and sleep, having absolutely no privacy, forced to submit to humiliation on a regular basis, living at the mercy of the mood swings of individual prison guards and other prisoners -- you get "free everything"!

As long as people view the "justice" system through the mainstream media's skewed lens on the world, America's insane prison system will continue to seem right to an awful lot of people. Government policies will continue to focus on warehousing and punishment, rather than education, rehabilitation and victim services.

The "prisoners get what they deserve" attitude that is so prevalent in our society, "isn't because of any natural consequence of people's thinking process," explains Prison Legal News editor and Washington state prisoner Paul Wright. "Rather, it is the carefully inculcated notion that comes after years of bombardment on what to think by the media."

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