Prison Policy In Media Driven America

Arthur Stamoulis

John Stossel’s
report will make you see red,” promised the promotion for a “20/20” story on
“The Great Prison Pastime.” Viewers lucky enough to see the newsmagazine’s
investigation quickly found out why.

reported how states such as Florida, which wanted to “rebuild schools after
Hurricane Andrew” and “expand its Head Start program,” were unable to fund
such worthy causes, in part, because they spent so much money defending
lawsuits from thieves, child molesters, and murderers suing prisons over
“petty gripes.”

The Attorney
General from Nevada told of cases where “inmates have sued because they didn’t
like the shape that their piece of cake or dessert was in.” Stossel reported
on prisoners suing because they didn’t have access to birth control pills or
because they couldn’t attend chapel in the nude.

Attorney General went on to explain the situation this way: “If you’re sitting
around and you got nothing to do, if you’re tired of lifting weights or
playing basketball or having all the other recreational opportunities that
most honest, law-abiding citizens don’t have, then you can go and file your
lawsuits and maybe you’ll hit the jackpot. Maybe you’ll hit the lottery and
make a hundred grand…

“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

mentioned that once convicted of a crime, poor prisoners lose their right to a
public defender; thus many are forced to take up legal study in order to draft
their own appeals.

mentioned the fact that, when incarcerated, civil litigation is often the only
legal way for people to escape inhumane or discriminatory treatment. “The
Great Prison Pastime” didn’t even ask prison officials about alternative ways
prisoners might address their grievances.

Without this
crucial information, “20/20” host Hugh Downes summed up the story perfectly by
posing the question, “Are we going too far to protect inmates’ rights?”

This story was
first broadcast in 1993 along with a story on Lorena Bobbitt, and then
re-aired in a separate program in 1994 before a piece on O.J. Simpson.
Unfortunately for those who want to go further protecting the human rights of
prisoners, the mainstream media’s treatment of prison policy has not improved
much in the years since.

“Many people
think that prison is a country club,” says Prison Legal News editor
Paul Wright. “This is one of the right-wing myths that’s been propagated,
right up there with the welfare queen and illegal immigrants living high off
the hog, as it were.”

Newspapers like
the New York Times, Boston Globe, and Los Angeles Times
have all used the phrase “country club prison” in headlines. The AP newswire
and National Public Radio have also been known to use the term, which
continues to make its way into local television news programs to this day.

The prison
coverage on Fox News’ “The O’Reilly Report” was not atypical. It aired James
Fotis of the Law Enforcement Alliance of America stating that “some prisons
are like hotels.” Guests mentioned prisoners’ access to things like
television, videos, and tennis courts.

The danger of
these outrageous stereotypes comes when they’re used as the base-point for
creating prison policies. Wright argues that: “Prisons aren’t just meant to
control the one person out of every 150 who’s in here. The example of the
prisoner is meant to control the other 149 who aren’t in prison and let them
know that, ‘yes, this could happen to you.’ One of the ways to ensure that
this is an effective example is to make sure that the conditions of prisoners
are always worse than the worst conditions on the outside. And so we have a
kind of symbiotic effect here where, as conditions for poor people on the
outside worsen, so, too, do the conditions for prisoners on the inside worsen
even further.”

”20/20” story actually led to the creation of a task force among different
attorney general’s offices. The task force created policies designed to make
prisoners’ access to the courts more difficult.

In 1996, the
Supreme Court issued a ruling known as Lewis v. Casey that reversed a
ruling from 20 years earlier that prisoners must have access to either a law
library or an attorney to assure their access to the courts. As a result, a
number of states have been cutting back inmates’ access to law books.

That same year,
Congress passed legislation that severely limited prisoners’ access to legal
help. The Prison Litigation Reform Act limited the fees lawyers can collect
after winning civil cases taken on behalf of prisoners, thus making even
sure-fire cases very unattractive. Congress also passed restrictive funding on
the Legal Services Corporation, a nonprofit organization founded by Congress
to provide legal services on behalf of low-income people. The nonprofit can no
longer provide funding to groups that represent even a single prisoner—no
matter how strong his or her case or the need for legal aid.

Still, many
Americans believe that people who do something to end up in prison get what
they deserve. Wright argues, however, that “this isn’t because of a natural
consequence of their thinking process. Rather it is the carefully inculcated
notion that comes after years of bombardment on what to think by the media.”

According to
studies by communications professor George Gerbner, 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.

“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 & Order
, CSI, and NYPD Blue leave one 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 off
of all sorts of charges even though the lawyers, clients, and viewing audience
all know the person is guilty and plans to break the law again.

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

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 percent during the period between 1990 and 1998, news coverage of
homicides actually increased by 473 percent.

An RMMW study
of local TV newscasts across the country shows that 40 to 50 percent of all
news airtime is devoted to violent topics. It’s little wonder that, no matter
what people’s education, age, income, gender, race or neighborhood, heavy
television viewers are more afraid of crime than more infrequent TV viewers in
the same demographic.

Children Now
recommends that parents speak with their children about the levels of violent
crime reported in the news and express to them that crime reporting is not an
accurate representation of reality.

They should
keep in mind Gerbner’s findings that adults who watch more television—again,
regardless of demographic group— are more likely than less-frequent viewers:

  • to believe that their
    neighborhoods are unsafe
  • to state that fear of
    crime is a very serious personal problem
  • to buy new locks,
    watchdogs, and guns “for protection”

Think these
people are just better informed? Think again. No matter what the neighborhood,
heavier TV viewers are also more likely:

  • to overestimate their
    chances of involvement in violence
  • to assume that crime is
    rising, regardless of the facts of the case

Perhaps people
exposed to mainstream media—people for whom irrational fear has become a part
of their daily reality—are also more likely to support tough-on- crime
sentencing and repressive prison policies. While only further study can say
for sure, it seems like a valid theory given the “lock ‘em up and throw away
the key” attitudes of many Americans.

Add to the mix
the facts that people of color are disproportionately depicted as criminals in
local television news; that teenagers are disproportionately portrayed as
violent in almost all forms of media; and that white collar crime is almost
nonexistent on the media radar, and next-to-never portrayed as a form of

Through the
mainstream media’s lens on the world, America’s insane prison system seems
almost right. Calls for less for prisoners—“the worst of the worst in
society,” in the words of one mainstream newscast—seem just about on target.