Graduation Year


Document Type




Degree Granting Department


Major Professor

Michael J. Lynch, Ph.D.

Co-Major Professor

Wilson R. Palacios, Ph.D.

Committee Member

Lorie Fridell, Ph.D.

Committee Member

Jennifer Friedman, Ph.D.


incarceration, social constructionism, movies, media, propaganda, newsmaking, criminology


Research on the criminal justice system, punishment, and media continue to generate academic interest, particularly in the realm of social constructionism. The social construction perspective provides insight into the process through which media-controlled images are translated into social definitions of crime and justice. One new area of interest is the representations of prisons and penal culture by the entertainment media, namely the film industry. In this study, the author contributes to the area of social constructionist literature by administering a content analysis of eleven feature films on male prisons produced between 1979 and 2001. The author examines the frequency and context of several constructs of penal culture: drug use and trafficking, rape and sexual assault, violence, and gang affiliation. This research examines whether the representations of these issues in recent motion pictures are consistent with extant academic correctional literature.

The present study found that within prison films the amount of portrayal of drug use and trafficking, and rape and sexual assault is consistent with the academic literature. Overall, when compared to the academic literature, prison movies under represent gang affiliation but within movies that portray gang affiliation, that portrayal is similar to the academic literature. Notably, heroin was the drug of choice depicted within prison films while academic correctional research in prisons shows marijuana as the drug of choice. The most significant finding was that the amount and type of violence, specifically murder, was overrepresented in prison films compared to the amount and type of violence reported within current academic research.

The over emphasis on violence and killing within prison films and the representation of heroin as the major drug consumed and trafficked could lead to public misunderstanding about the realities of prison life and living conditions of the prison institution. This study provides not only noteworthy information concerning the representations of prison life and penal culture by the film industry but also insight into the inconsistencies between the information presented on film and that within academic correctional literature that are transferred via this medium to the general public.