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US prison TV: toughest on the block
By guardian.co.uk
Published: 08/02/2011

In the late 18th century the philosopher and social reformer Jeremy Bentham designed what he called the Panopticon, a prison whose inmates could be continually and invisibly surveyed. "The more constantly the persons to be inspected are under the eyes of the persons who should inspect them," he wrote, "the more perfectly the will the purpose of the establishment be attained." To Bentham's dismay, none were ever built. Had Bentham pitched his project along entertainment rather than economic lines he might have been more successful. Two centuries later, as any insomniac with a Sky box can tell you, prisons have taken their place on the podium with sharks and Hitler as one of satellite television's favourite themes. Staring at the incarcerated is back in style.

In simple dramatic terms, prison is a prime location. Conflict, confinement and redemption are powerful narrative forces and just a decade ago prison fictions from Porridge to Oz far outweighed their factual equivalents on screen. In the intervening years though they have effectively been muscled off the yard by a new and more unruly inmate – the American prison documentary.

On any given evening the viewer can see the lurid excesses of a penal system struggling to cope with 2.3 million Americans under lock and key. In one two-hour period over the weekend, I saw stabbings, tear gassings, people dispersed with fire hoses, a montage of facial woundings, sexual assaults, shackles, shakedowns, contraband from a tomahawk made of broken razor blades to a Ken Follett novel, and what appeared to be an entire basketball game trying to stab itself to death.

None of this is unusual – quite the reverse. Even the more sober programmes appear inclined to leaven any outbreak of pathos, calm or kindness with explosions of CCTV violence. If this were to remind us that prison is something to be avoided, then that might be laudable, but instead one suspects our darker instincts are being pandered to. If anyone is making programmes called America's Calmest Jails or When Cheerful Inmates Play Cards then they have been held up in the edit. Trouble, threat and tragedy are the keywords.

The shows themselves are almost as numerous as the inmates. The undisputed daddy of the franchise (and, it should be said, one its more thoughtful offerings) is MSNBC's Lockup, which has expanded to include Lockup Extended Stay, Lockup World Tour, Lockup Raw and others, as well as Women Behind Bars and Babies Behind Bars.

The aforementioned list of incidents from the weekend came from a back-to-back presentation on National Geographic of Extreme Prison Gangs and Busted In Miami. The latter programme featured the same prison and guards as visited by Louis Theroux in Miami Mega Jail earlier this year for the BBC. But while Theroux at least takes the time to put himself in the picture and ask why things are the way they are, many shows are little more than voiceovers and violence.

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