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Book Review

Punishment in Popular Culture

Reviewed by Robert Costello

Written by Charles J. Ogletree Jr. and Austin Sarat, New York: New York University Press, 2015; 306 pp, ISBN: 978-1-4798-3352-8, $27 (pbk)

Punishment in America has rightfully been researched by scholars from various fields including law, criminology, political science, and public administration—to highlight just a few—with a plethora of corresponding scholarship. Ogletree and Sarat add their sizeable contribution to this subject with their fifth book together. They bring a fresh perspective by exploring the broad theme of punishment in popular culture. This is not another book of essays discussing the much-publicized “CSI-effect,” which is still licensed across 200 countries in 30 languages. Rather, this book explores the “cultural lives” of the institutions and processes of punishment in the United States. The notion that culture and institutions of punishment are mutually interdependent serves as the basis of the book. (3)

Ogletree and Sarat utilize sociologist David Garland as the primary theoretical foundation to this work. In particular, their view of the institutions of punishment and culture are intersected in two key ways: Culture gives punishment meaning and legitimacy as well as shapes its practice through cultural sensibilities and mentalities. (2)

While the study of punishment across socioeconomics and racial lines is justifiably widescale, this book provides an often-neglected but equally worthy exploration of “the cultural life” of punishment—that is, punishment’s embeddedness in discourses and symbolic practices in specific times and places. (3)

The co-editors assembled an impressive array of distinguished scholars in the fields of law, media studies, history, and communications as well as budding scholars/undergraduate students from Amherst College to contribute eight essays across three sections that comprise this book.

The first two chapters make-up Part I, entitled “The Popularity of Punishment.” Historian Lary May connects the rise of the punitive state in our country with the “backlash films” of Dirty Harry, Death Wish, and Rambo among others. These films set “the tone for a shift in public opinion to expand the prison system and restore the death penalty.” (32) This genre of film had hits for 20 years—early 1970s to early 1990s, during which time our inmate population rapidly expanded.

May posits that the power of these films derives from the “culture of defeat.” Moreover, “modern nations defeated in war undergo three related reactions over time: fear, followed by purges of those assumed to be responsible for defeat, followed by the emergence of redemptive politics that promise fresh culture of victory.” (25) This is a common plot formula in backlash films.

While May helps to explain the willing culture necessary to create the world’s largest prison population, Aurora Wallace’s fascinating review of National Geographic Channel’s Locked Up Abroad helps readers understand America’s complacency with the injustices inherent in our institutions of punishment—namely prisons.

Locked Up Abroad is a reality-based “docutainment” show produced by UK-based Raw TV in its sixth season. Despite the term “locked up” in its title, the show mainly focuses on “dilemmas and decisions” made by the subject, with the final 10–15 minutes showcasing his or her incarceration, thus bearing out the claim of sociologist Jack Katz that “audiences are more interested in the commission of crime than in its aftermath.” (58)

Wallace’s most compelling critique with this series is its lack of comparison to US prisons. She uses the final pages to juxtapose foreign prison experiences as shown in Locked Up Abroad to for-profit prisons in America.

In Chapters 3, 4, and 5 readers are introduced to distinctive criticisms of punishment in America by various forms of popular culture such as films and television series. Kristin Whissel offers a masterful analysis of a film genre she dubbed “the Classical Era Hollywood prison film.” She utilizes two films: I Am a Fugitive from a Chain Gang (1932) and Brute Force (1947). It is this reviewer’s opinion that a lack of familiarity with either film was a detriment to fully comprehending this well-written essay. Despite my own personal limitations, Whissel makes a key point about Classical Hollywood prison films. They are less concerned with the realistic depictions of prison life as they prefer to highlight the extralegal punishments found within their walls. Chapter 4 deconstructs the moral justifications for punishment by analyzing The Wire. Co-creators David Simon and Ed Burns utilize their respective journalism and police detective backgrounds to produce “a fascinating media textbook for the analysis and critique of contemporary criminal justice policy and punishment theory.” (119) The entire essay revolves around the following quote:

Michael Lee: How ya’ll even know that Walter the one behind everybody getting jacked? I mean ain’t ya’ll even wondering if he even deserve any of this shit? Snoop: Deserve ain’t got nothing to do with it. It’s his time. That’s all.

While this dialogue is between two criminals, author Kristin Henning believes it serves as a critique of America’s punishment system with her analysis utilizing philosophical principles connected to punishment theory to make her case. It is an essay worthy for many advanced undergraduate and graduate classes in philosophy, media studies, sociology/criminology, and law. Daniel Lachance follows with an essay that explores how prisons “became a fictional setting in which a white, masculine obsession with control—the capacity to use intellectual, social, cultural, and economic capital to create or maintain a desired set of conditions—was being exposed as self-destructive.” (166) The television show Oz (1997–2003) and the films The Shawshank Redemption (1994) and American History X (1998) served as examples to explain the author’s thesis that the obsession of control by white males has fundamentally harmed them. One possible curriculum use is to show one of the films in class, and then use this essay to help further student understanding of its criticism of punishment.

The final section—“The Reception and Impact of Punishment in Popular Culture”—explores execution scenes, the public’s response to Abu Ghraib, and images of punishment in wrongful convictions. While the death penalty in America has substantial support from the public, executions are secret affairs with limited witnesses. Thus, the depiction of executions in films serves as the only reference point for the vast majority of Americans. After reviewing a century of films with execution scenes, the authors draw three main motifs. First, movie viewers are presented to be spectators of the execution, which is an effective method that leaves viewers “to wonder what, if anything, differentiates watching a show from seeing a state killing.” (202) Viewers also are given “backstage” access to the execution, allowing forbidden witnessing of the apparatus of death. Finally, the focus of viewers shifts to the perspective of the person about to be executed. The essay offers an extensive discussion of execution scenes in films while posing the probative question of how these scenes provoke “an awareness of the political responsibility inherent in their identities as democratic citizens in a killing state.” (203) The second essay for this section investigates the potential motivations for the smiling faces of the soldiers in the photographs at Abu Ghraib. Legal scholar Amy Adler advances that the soldiers may have found the torture entertaining due to its resemblance to mainstream entertainment. Her convincing evidence is a fascinating analysis of the evolution of reality television coupled with Freudian theory. Brandon L. Garrett closes this volume with an intriguing review of the role of images used in trials of the innocent. (259) A noted strength in this essay is a brief section about the potential use of social media in wrongful convictions.

Ogletree and Sarat far exceed the daunting challenge of essay-based books—to deliver evenly written pieces that fulfill the book’s purpose. Not only are the essays of equal quality and equal insight, but the essays are well integrated with one another as several reference each other. All the essays are meticulously cited.

ROBERT COSTELLO is a professor and chair of the Criminal Justice Department at SUNY Nassau Community College (Garden City, New York) and adjunct professor of sociology at Hofstra University. He received a Fulbright Award to lecture at the University of Malta about the administration of justice in the United States and recently submitted a college textbook about the criminal justice system in New York State. He is a regular columnist for Criminal Justice magazine and welcomes feedback at [email protected].

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