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Spectacles of prison visibility: Masculinities, punishment and social order in US screen prison drama 1995-2005

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(Dissertation) Ph.D.
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The United States has emerged at the head of an international trend in penal expansion and punitive crime control (Garland, 1990; 2001; Wacquant, 1999). A spate of screen prison dramas has emerged on US television and in the cinema during the period from 1995 to 2005. These dramas are the object of analysis in this dissertation. The project takes popular culture as site of negotiation over meaning and performs textual analysis of six recent screen prison dramas, highlighting play of resistive and normative discourses. Foreground are articulations of race and gender identities, discourses on crime and criminality, framings of sexuality and images of the prison institution. The study contends that neo-liberal discourses associated with punitive shift in criminal policy are refracted through norm-contesting discourses on sexuality, race and the prison system in screen prison drama. This perspective differs from research by criminology and sociology scholars (Mason, 1996; 1998a; 1998b; 2003; Nellis and Hale, 1982; Wilson and Sean O’Sullivan, 2004; Cheatwood, 1998). Criminological analyses of screen prison drama suggest that media texts “affect” penal policy conservatively (Mason, 1998a; 1998b; 2003; Nellis and Hale, 1982). Communications- and cultural studies writers Yvonne Jewkes (2005), Brian Jarvis (2004), Elayne Rapping (2003), and Nicole Rafter (2000) are limited also (with the exception of Jewkes), in relation to their somewhat binary analysis of the resistive/hegemonic facets of screen prison drama. Writers Rapping, Jarvis and Rafter focus solely on the normative aspects of screen prison drama, whereas criminologists Wilson and O’Sullivan (2004) are concerned to demonstrate resistive aspects of the genre. With reference to a Foucauldian perspective on social construction, and critical race writing, the project examines instances of prison visibility for discourses on crime and punishment, as well as indications of how other types of social formation are negotiated. The project situates itself also with theoretical debates on how the issues of race and social cleavages are mapped. Concern over the formation of social hierarchy thus meets a more strictly socially constructionist perspective on the processes of culture.
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