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Prison Policy In Media Driven America
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.
Stossel 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.
Arizona's 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 everything.”
Nobody 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.
Nobody 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.”
Stossel's ”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 violence.
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. Z