|The Public Image of Corrections|
|By Sgt. Chris Pearson - Mass Department of Corrections|
When the topic of public safety and law enforcement careers is mentioned and initiated for discussion, why is it that becoming a correction officer is never mentioned as a sought-after career? Why is that? Is the media to blame or are we, as professionals, causing our own negative culture?
The job of a correctional officer is a thankless job not everyone can handle. Mainstream media often portray correction officers as brutal, corrupt, ignorant bullies who take advantage of unfortunate inmates with no civil rights. Anyone who has worked in corrections knows this to be far from the truth and the daily reality is nowhere near the image portrayed by the media and the film industry. Hollywood is usually the first to be singled out because it’s an industry that reaps impressive profits from prison movies that present distorted views of correctional reality by focusing on sensationalism. The most powerful images promoting a negative stereotype are presented in classic prison movies such as The Longest Yard, Cool Hand Luke, Escape from Alcatraz, and The Shawshank Redemption. These films evoke audience sympathy for inmates and contempt for prison staff while inflaming a negative stereotype of correctional professionals. The majority of the general public has no personal knowledge of modern correctional reality, so they easily accept the rhetoric of politicians and the distorted imagery of Hollywood, especially when a corrections horror story ("Prison Guards Indicted in Inmate Beating Death") is being aired on the nightly news. This enduring fallacy is initially created by stereotypical Hollywood accounts of correctional life being reinforced by news media coverage of employee misconduct and scandals.
Even though many jails and prisons suffer from overcrowding, understaffing and overworked officers, these are the realities that don’t have entertainment value and, therefore, are never detailed in movies and media coverage. Everyone likes to root for the underdog and the media loves to portray inmates as the unfortunate, neglected, mistreated and misunderstood victims of correctional monsters carrying guns, nightsticks and mace who happily practice sadism as an art form. This is an insult to the correctional men and women of today who are skilled, highly trained professionals with a majority holding college degrees. A negative public perce ption of a correctional organization has serious consequences, including damaging the community relations of prison systems and jeopardizing their legislative support. The failure of public officials and others to fully understand the issues confuses the public and demoralizes corrections staff who feel as if their contributions to public safety are being minimized in the public eye.
Unfortunately, employee misconduct also reinforces negative stereotypes. Although it is only a minority of correctional employees who engage in destructive behavior at any given time, all employees are tarred with the same brush. The only antidote to this negative correctional stereotyping is community education and organizational professionalism. Both methodologies serve to enhance our image and restore credit to an honorable profession.
Hopefully by educating the public, our elected officials, and the media about the challenges corrections professionals face everyday, a greater respect for our profession and an appreciation of the unwavering dedication delivered daily by the forgotten branch of public safety will be achieved.
Editor's Note: This article is reprinted with permission from "Around the Block", the Mass Department of Corrections News Letter
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