When my dad was incarcerated, I began noticing specific tropes that reinforce a cultural narrative about prison all around me.
a bad person does a bad thing and is locked away for years to protect the public
My therapist helped me handle the anger and shame associated with having a loved one in prison. A volunteer group I had joined through my church put me in contact with formerly incarcerated people who shared their stories of years behind bars, from callous correctional officers to lifelong friendships with cellmates. I started volunteering at book-packing programs, reading letters from incarcerated people asking for books, and getting glimpses into their inner lives from a paragraph or two on notebook paper. All of this amounted to intensive immersion therapy that made things easier over time. What ultimately helped me the most was reading as much as I could about prison—learning about prisoners’ rights, understanding the challenges and the shortcuts that can make the time seem shorter, and analyzing coping mechanisms for those on the inside.
It took me some time to be able to stomach depictions of prison in books, movies, and television. Though I listened to “Prison Trilogy” every day (sometimes multiple times a day), I was careful with my media consumption. Early on, my partner and I were choosing a movie from IMDb’s “Top 100” list. The Shawshank Redemption was one of them. “Too soon,” I said, moving quickly past it. Books and movies served a primary purpose: to escape. I wanted television to briefly transport me away from my crippling anxiety, so I chose comedies and thrillers. The summer after my dad’s sentencing, I filled my time with board games and playing cards, insulating myself from reality.
Over time, however, I found myself softening to stories that centered life in prison. I white-knuckled through An American Marriage as the novel’s main character Roy moved through life in a Louisiana state penitentiary. I read The New Jim Crow and Just Mercy. When prison scenes flashed across my TV in shows like The Undoing, I no longer felt the need to fast-forward. I laughed atthe iconic slicing-garlic-with-a-razor scene in Goodfellas.
But even more than we see prison on our screens, we see police officers, detectives, lawyers, and courtrooms. Copaganda is everywhere—in children’s shows, weaved into fiction, used as comedy, and blasted out on social media. The 2002 country music hit “Beer for My Horses” by Toby Keith goes even further than copaganda—the lyrics bemoan “too many gangsters . . . in the streets” and encourage lynchings: “Take all the rope in Texas find a tall oak tree / Round up all them bad boys hang them high in the street.”
Until just a few years ago, I was petrified of being the victim of a violent crime; I feared home invasions, being kidnapped walking to my car, or being brutally murdered by a sadistic stranger. I thought about those events happening so much I found myself mulling over what photos I’d like producers to use on TV when reporting my death.
Like many women I know, I had been inundated with true crime documentaries, podcasts, and TV shows with central storylines that almost always revolve around the killing of a young white woman. Shows such as Netflix’s Mindhunter scarred me—always a woman, always random. Even Mare of Easttown (a show I watched and loved as much as everyone else) could be categorized as copaganda, even with the heavy character studies and overarching themes about grief. It often left an unsettling pit in my stomach. Should a cop who (spoiler!) plants drugs on people ever be allowed to keep their job, even if they have the drive to solve grisly crimes? The enduring success of Law & Order and all of its spinoffs has helped create a pervasive misconception about policing and justice in the US. Like many others, I believed the world was full of people lurking in the shadows ready to attack me the minute I let my guard down—and that more policing and more incarceration would keep me safe.
Copaganda is everywhere.
The problem with this idea is that America’s prisons aren’t filled with kidnappers and murderers. When my dad would tell us about the men in his dormitories, I would often ask what the guys did that landed them there. “Ah, parole violation,” he would say. Or “Poor kid got ten years for stealing a car when he was eighteen.” Most often: “Drugs.”
Only once I found myself sitting in a visitation room could I see who was actually in prison. Many young men, barely out of their teens, sent there after a mistake or lapse in judgement, visited by their parents, partners, and little siblings. I saw many very, very old men who used walkers, whose wives bought them food from the canteen. I saw fathers briefly reunited with their children, holding toddlers and playing Uno. Couples laughed and exchanged stories, holding hands when correctional officers looked away. I once saw two young children latch onto their dad, crying silently into his prison uniform. In other instances I chatted with a canteen worker who had been busted with drugs at a Miami party and a still-grieving mother whose son had just received a fifteen-year manslaughter sentence. As I watched my own father walk into the room in prison blues, I wondered: Where were all the muscled, shiv-wielding lunatics that television told me were here?
During visitations, I’d think about how shows and movies about prison perpetuate the idea that inmates are attempting to smuggle in contraband any chance they can—cell phones, drugs, weapons. In The Night Of, a central storyline involves the main character being given drugs by a visitor and swallowing them to smuggle the drugs behind bars. However, in real life, correctional officers and facility staff are responsible for the majority of all contraband brought into prisons. Still, correctional departments have argued that in-person visits should be discontinued over concerns of contraband, mail has been limited in some states, and frequent strip searches are the norm.
In April of 2020, we found out that visitation with my dad had been postponed indefinitely. We had to wait for him to call us on one of two phones shared with seventy other men. Days later, Ellen DeGeneres made a quip about being in lockdown at her home similar to “being in jail”: “It’s mostly because I’ve been wearing the same clothes for ten days and everyone in here is gay,” she joked. Viewers were quick to point out the tone deafness and poor taste, as millions of families would go months without seeing their incarcerated loved ones—myself included. Over the course of the pandemic, thousands of incarcerated people have died in prison from Covid-19, some mere weeks out from their release dates.
Only once I found myself sitting in a visitation room could I see who was actually in prison.
Like Ellen, actors, screenwriters, and other public figures can perpetuate harmful tropes. Sexual assault and outright homophobia are undercurrents in prison comedies such as Let’s Go to Prison, The Longest Yard, and Madea Goes to Jail. Particularly unsettling is Get Hard, a movie that also makes ample use of tired racial characterizations. Despite the fact that data shows allegations against correctional officers and prison staffers make up the majority of all complaints, a pervasive belief—and running joke—is that prison rape is a deserved outcome for a person going to jail or prison.
The same goes for pop culture representations of policing. Dawn K. Cecil, author of Prison Life in Popular Culture, writes that repetition breeds reinforcement: The more one consumes mainstream crime-related media, the more likely it is that they will believe that “crime is rampant and mass incarceration is the answer.”
Recently, I’ve felt things have begun changing for the better. The voices of incarcerated people are being heard more than ever before. Formerly incarcerated people have even begun receiving critical acclaim for their stories. In 2019, Ear Hustle, a popular podcast hosted by two formerly incarcerated men, Earlonne Woods and Antwan Williams, was nominated for a Pulitzer Prize. In his book Solitary, which was a finalist for the National Book Award, Albert Woodfox writes about his experience spending more than forty years in solitary confinement in Angola after being falsely accused of murder. And of course, Ava Duvernay’s award-winning documentary 13th clearly outlines the racial disparities of mass incarceration and the financial incentives for politicians, CEOs, and lobbyists to incarcerate as many people, specifically Black and brown people, as possible.
Talking to currently or formerly incarcerated people can challenge the carefully crafted narrative we see on our screens that is designed to villainize millions of Americans. To ask them about life on the inside, what books they enjoy, their life before prison, and the loved ones that miss them is to acknowledge their humanity. By centering the true stories and realities of incarcerated people, we can debunk harmful myths and stop using people who often need help, but instead receive harm, as punchlines. We need to think of Billy Rose, Luna, and Kilowatt as brothers, fathers, uncles, and sons—and to recognize the families they long for on the outside—to foster better understanding and a more empathetic narrative about incarceration.