Unlocking the Gates: an Examination of MSNBC Investigates – Lockup



Abstract: Most people do not have first-hand knowledge of the prison system; therefore, media images are critical in shaping their understanding of these institutions. While research has examined how prisons are depicted in film, less attention has been paid to images in other facets of the media. This study examined MSNBC Investigates – Lockup in order to determine how televised documentaries depict prisons. Findings indicate that this series presents tales of some of the most extreme institutions and the most violent inmates. By using violence as the main frame, this programme sends messages that support the United States' current use of imprisonment.

In the United States there are more than 1.5 million adults in prison (Sabol, Couture and Harrison 2007). Despite the fact that incarceration touches the lives of so many, the general public has limited knowledge of prisons. Lacking first-hand experience with the prison system, most people's impressions of these institutions are derived from the images they receive. According to Surette (2007): ‘it is a tenet of social constructionism that the more remote the subject, the more the public perception of it will be shaped by media imagery’ (p.152), thus media images are critical to the public's perception of these institutions (Levenson 2001; Wilson and O'Sullivan 2004).

In the US there is a growing number of televised prison documentaries, which purport to offer a real look into prison life. While research has focused on prison films and, to some extent, televised prison dramas, little attention has been paid to the reality-based media images. This article seeks to explore how a televised documentary series, MSNBC Investigates – Lockup, depicts American prisons. In doing so, several questions are posed. First, how do televised documentaries portray prison? Second, is this portrayal accurate and representative? Finally, how do the producers frame the issue of imprisonment?

Prisons in the Media

Images of prisons can be found throughout the media; some of these images are fictional, while others are reality-based. Most of the literature on these images of prison focuses on films (for example, Cheatwood 1998; Mason 2006b; O'Sullivan 2001; Rafter 2006; Wilson and O'Sullivan 2004), while some of it refers to the less common televised prison drama (for example, Jarvis 2006; Rapping 2003; Wilson and O'Sullivan 2004). While rooted in fantasy, prison films and televised dramas are marketed as true depictions of life behind bars (see Rafter 2006; Surette 2007). Overall, media images of prison are rare (Surette 2007); therefore, the influence of these fictionalised images cannot be underestimated (Freeman 2000).

Images of prison are also found in the news and in reality-based crime programmes on television, although both are relatively rare in comparison to prison films. Since uncommon events such as riots and escapes are considered newsworthy (Chermak 1998; Lipschultz and Hilt 2002), news stories about the prison system are scarce (Surette 2007). Chermak (1998) found that only 17% of the crime stories in his study covered correctional institutions. The low occurrence of these news stories may explain the dearth of research on how prisons are depicted in the news (for examples of this research refer to Cecil (2007a); Mason (2006a); Welch, Weber and Edwards (2000)). What is known is that negative correctional stories are more prominent than positive ones (Freeman 2000). These stories tend to focus on problems of the prison system through stories of the system failing to protect the public, pursuing improper goals, and corruption and brutality within the system (Surette 2007).

Real-life images of prison are not limited to those in the news media. Documentaries also offer insight into the prison system; however, to date there has not been a lot of research on this topic. Bennett (2006a; 2006b) examined Rex Bloomstein's British documentaries on prison, while Cecil (2007b) examined American documentaries featuring women in prison. Surette (2007) states that very few prison documentaries have received widespread play. This observation may explain the lack of attention to the content of these documentaries; however, the changing nature of television programming has changed the structure of documentaries. Over time, many of these televised documentaries took on elements of entertainment-style programming in order to draw in viewers (Kilborn and Izod 1997); this technique has become known as infotainment. Surette (2007) argues that the correctional system is not a significant topic in this genre due to the fact that prison films market themselves as accurate depictions and prison administrators do not have any incentive to co-operate with the filming of these shows. However, during a recent six-month period, over 50 televised documentaries featuring prisons were recorded on American cable television.

One particular series to offer insight into the prison system airs on the 24-hour cable news station MSNBC. Their series, MSNBC Investigates – Lockup, hereafter referred to as Lockup, is an example of televised images of prison from the infotainment perspective. Each episode begins with a warning to the viewers, followed by: ‘There are 2 million people behind bars in America. We open the gates’. Unlocking the gates suggests an all-access look into these institutions. Purporting to offer secrets of life behind bars by examining real prisons across the US, this show has the potential to overshadow the images received from fictional accounts of prison. Yet, the nature of the genre itself means the line between fact and fiction is blurred (Cavender and Fishman 1998).

Infotainment Programmes and Frames

Viewers of prison films and televised dramas recognise on some level that these accounts of prison life are fictionalised, even if they are unsure of which elements have been subjected to interpretation and shaped by the creative process. However, when watching reality-based programmes the audience may not take into consideration the process used to create the final product. Reality-based crime programmes present highly-edited versions of reality, while claiming to present the unadulterated truth (Cavender and Fishman 1998).

A major component viewers may not consider is the editing process. While a valid consideration for all reality-based crime programming (see Doyle 2003; Fishman and Cavender 1998), it is especially pertinent to those presenting prison life. Producers are required to adhere to the wishes of prison administrators, who must maintain control of the institution and ensure the safety of those involved. Once the film crew leaves the prison the producers will edit the images to create a story. The story that is presented depends on how the issue being presented is framed.

Frames ‘are the focus, a parameter or boundary, for discussing a particular event. Frames focus on what will be discussed, how it will be discussed, and above all, how it will not be discussed’ (Altheide 1997, p.651). According to Tuchman (1978), frames are influenced, in part, by prior frames. The frames used determine the nature of the coverage (Cavender 2004), since producers will discard information that does not fit into these prespecified frames. Cecil (2007b) found that producers of women-in-prison programmes drew from notorious ‘babes-behind-bars’ films and other media stereotypes of females to frame the issue through the lenses of sex, violence, and motherhood, thereby failing to address some of the main issues facing women in prison. Similarly, frames used in other prison documentaries are most likely based on those previously used, thereby limiting the view of imprisonment presented.

MSNBC Investigates – Lockup

Lockup debuted in 2000, originally featuring ten one-hour long documentaries (MSNBC 2003). Each episode focuses on one prison, offering insight into life within that institution. According to Sarah Paoge, an executive with 44 Blue Productions, the purpose of the programme is ‘to give an unbiased view of a day in the life of the prison’ (Sarah Paoge, personal communication, 18 June 2007). Producers try to speak to everyone from inmates to treatment and custody staff, as well as prison administrators. Each hour-long episode is filmed over the course of eight consecutive days (Sarah Paoge, personal communication, 18 June 2007). The biggest hurdle is convincing administrators to allow them access to the institution. According to Sarah Paoge:

[t]his can take a lot of time and convincing, even with the great reputation we have developed over the years. Often times the prisons and jails feel that our presence will be too much of an interruption to the daily operation of their facility, regardless of how big or small our camera crew is.

(personal communication, 18 June 2007)

Despite these challenges, 31 episodes of the original Lockup series have aired on MSNBC.

Currently there are several different prison documentary series airing on cable television in the United States. There are several reasons why Lockup was selected for this study. First, it is both a popular and award winning programme. It is currently rated as the top prison show on cable television in the United States and in 2001 won a film and documentary award for one of its episodes (44 Blue Productions 2008). In addition, it was the first series of its kind to air in the United States and is currently one of the longest running televised prison documentary series.1 Similar series have subsequently been added to the line-up on other cable television stations in the United States, including Lockdown on the National Geographic Channel and Inside, a short-lived series on Court TV, both of which debuted in 2007. Lockup's popularity has led to the development of two spin-off series currently airing on MSNBC. The first, Lockup Extended Stay, features several episodes focusing on San Quentin, Holman, and Corcoran Prisons. The second, Lockup Raw, features never-before-seen footage from previous episodes of the original Lockup series. Since these two spin-offs are relatively new and have a slightly different focus from the original Lockup series, episodes from these two programmes were not included in this study.


Lockup was recorded using a digital video recorder over a five-month period, during which 21 episodes of the programme were obtained. For the purpose of this study, only those episodes featuring prisons were included, leaving a sample of 18. The remaining episodes featured county jails and were therefore excluded from the analysis.

Content analysis was selected for this study. Commonly used for media studies, this method allows for the identification of both manifest content, which encompasses the images presented, and latent content, or the underlying messages (Babbie 2004; see also, Altheide 1996; Berger 1998; Zito 1975). This study focused primarily on manifest content, with minimal discussion of the latent content presented in this documentary series.

Each episode was examined several times, during which data were collected from both visual cues and dialogue to offer a description of the programme's content, as well as to determine the accuracy of the images presented. Data were collected on inmates, staff, the prison, and elements of prison life. Demographic information was collected on both inmates and staff featured in each episode. Featured inmates and staff were those interviewed on camera. Other inmates and staff may have been depicted visually, but were not included in this study. Offence and sentence-related data were also collected on the featured inmates, as well as data on the specific prison depicted. The exact data varied depending on the type of information presented in each episode. At the very least, location, security level and population size were noted for each institution. If this information was not presented in the episode, the institution's website was consulted. Furthermore, information on the topics related to institutional life was collected, including the following: aspects of the prison process covered (from orientation to release), parts of the institutions featured (for example, special housing units, death row, etc.), inmate programmes, and other aspects of the prison routine, as well as elements of the inmate social system. National statistics were then consulted to offer a comparison. These data allow for descriptions of the inmates and their crimes, and the determination of whether Lockup reflects the true nature of America's prisons.

The following analysis begins with a quantitative look at how this series portrays prisons, prisoners and prison life. By comparing these data to the aforementioned statistics one is able to examine the representativeness of the images presented; however, there is more to the story than these numbers show. The discussion of the findings delves into the qualitative data in order to offer further insight into how the main topics are displayed. It is by examining these data further that the true messages associated with the images can be identified.


The Institutions and Staff

Eighteen prisons were featured in the Lockup episodes examined, all of which were maximum-security institutions (see Table 1). This is the first indication that this programme offered a limited view of imprisonment. In actuality, less than one-quarter of state prisons in the US are maximum-security facilities (Stephan and Karberg 2003). If maximum-security prisons housed most inmates that might justify the focus on these institutions; however, only about one-fifth of the prison population is held in this level institution (Stephan and Karberg 2003).

Table 1. 
Prisons Featured on MSNBC Investigates – Lockup*
Name (year produced)LocationSecurity
Gender of
  • (Note:

  • *

    Each episode is produced by 44 Blue Productions.)

Anamosa State Penitentiary (2005)Iowamaximummale1300
Brushy Mountain Correctional Complex (2006)Tennesseemaximummale560
Return to Corcoran (2005)Californiamaximummale5000
Elayn Hunt Correctional Center (2005)Louisianamaximummale2100
Folsom State Prison (2000)Californiamaximummale4000
Holman Correctional Facility (2006)Alabamamaximummale1000
Indiana State Prison (2006)Indianamaximummale2000
Iowa State Penitentiary (2006)Iowamaximummale566
Kentucky State Penitentiary (2005)Kentuckymaximummale900
Penitentiary of New Mexico (2005)New Mexicomaximummale800
North Carolina Correctional Institution for Women (2005)North Carolinamaximumfemale1100
Return to Pelican Bay (2005)Californiamaximummale3489
Riverbend Maximum Security Institution (2005)Tennesseemaximummale700
San Quentin State Prison (2000)Californiamaximummale5850
Stateville Correctional Center (2000)Illinoismaximummale2600
Utah State Prison (2005)Utahmaximumboth4000
Wabash Valley Correctional Facility (2005)Indianamaximummale2200

The prisons featured in these episodes were large institutions. On average, the featured prisons housed 2,148 inmates, ranging from 500 to more than 5,800 inmates (see Table 1). In actuality, only 15.8% of state prisons house more than 1,500 inmates (Stephan and Karberg 2003), yet more than half of the institutions featured in the Lockup sample had the capacity to house so many inmates. While a significant proportion (35%) of state prisons house less than 250 inmates (Stephan and Karberg 2003), these smaller institutions were not depicted. Lastly, the institutions featured in Lockup were mostly male prisons (n=16, 88.9%), which in actuality is only a small difference from state prisons in the US, 84% of which are male-only facilities (Stephan and Karberg 2003). Of the remaining prisons featured, one was a co-correctional facility and one was a women's prison.

Overall, 214 staff members were featured in the episodes examined, including correctional officers, treatment staff and administrators. Of the featured staff, 78.5% (n=168) were male, which is an over-representation of the proportion of males working in the prison system. According to Stephan and Karberg (2003), approximately 67% of prison staff are male, while the remaining one-third are female. Lockup featured a more accurate representation of the racial and ethnic make-up of prison staff. Of the 214 prison staff featured in the episodes, 72.9% (n=156) were White, 19.6% (n=42) African American, and 7.0% (n=15) Hispanic. Nationally, the race/ethnicity of prison staff are as follows: 69% White, 21% African American, 8% Hispanic and 2% other races and ethnicities (Stephan and Karberg 2003).

In sum, Lockup presented a more accurate view of prison employees than of the institutions themselves. By focusing exclusively on large maximum-security institutions this series offered only a glimpse at the realities of the prison system. This failure is likely replicated in the inmates who were featured in this series.

The Inmates

Overall, 313 inmates were featured in the episodes sampled. The majority of these inmates were male (90.4%, n=283), which closely reflects the gender make-up of the prison population, as approximately 93% of those incarcerated in prisons are male (Sabol, Couture and Harrison 2007). Race or ethnicity was available for all featured inmates and are as follows: 59.4% (n=186) White, 29.1% (n=91) African American, 9.3% (n=29) Hispanic and 2.2% (n=7) from other racial or ethnic backgrounds. According to national statistics, 40% of prison inmates in the US are White, 41.6% African American, 15.5% Hispanic and 2.7% other (Sabol, Couture and Harrison 2007). Lockup exaggerated the percentage of inmates who are White, while under-representing those who are African American and Hispanic. In some respects this finding is consistent with other media representations of crime. In general, the media tend to focus on White offenders (Surette 2007) and to under-represent minorities (Larson 2006). However, the media are also known to over-represent African Americans when focusing on violence (Dorfman and Schiraldi 2001), which was not the case in this series.

Offences were given for 182 of the inmates depicted in these episodes. Approximately three-quarters (n=136) of the inmates were incarcerated for violent offences, whilst the remaining (n=46) were incarcerated for non-violent offences. More specifically, 10.4% (n=19) were incarcerated for property crimes, 12.1% (n=22) drug offences, and 2.7% (n=5) public order offences. The most common offence was murder. Seventy (38.5%) of these inmates were incarcerated for murder. In actuality, 51.8% of inmates in state facilities are imprisoned for violent offences and only 13.4% are incarcerated for murder or manslaughter (Harrison and Beck 2006). Similar to other media representations of crime, this programme over-emphasises inmates incarcerated for violent crimes, while under-representing those in prison for other crimes.

Lockup not only over-represented violent inmates, it also featured inmates who were serving severe sentences. Sentences were given for 133 inmates, 26.3% (n=35) of whom were serving life sentences and 10.5% (n=14) were sentenced to death. In actuality fewer than 10% of the prison population are serving life in prison (Mauer, King and Young 2004) and fewer than 1% are sentenced to death (Harrison and Beck 2006; Snell 2006). The average sentence length was also exaggerated. While the average sentence length in state prison is four years and five months (Durose and Langan 2004), the average sentence length in these episodes was 29.5 years.

While showing violent inmates serving long sentences, the programme does not pay much attention to the problems many of these inmates face, which are more severe than the problems faced by prisoners of the past (Petersilia 2003). Some of these problems include mental illness, addiction, HIV and other health issues, and minor children who must be cared for during incarceration. Lockup covered these issues, but not in depth. Ten episodes (55.6%) broached the topic of prisoners' children. Nearly all of the episodes (n=17, 94.4%) discussed addiction-related issues. Mental illness was addressed in several of the episodes (n=14, 77.8%), while histories of abuse (n=6, 33.3%) and HIV (n=4, 22.2%) were rarely addressed. Each of these issues was typically mentioned in passing rather than being featured in a segment of the episode. For example, many episodes cite drug addiction when discussing the problem of drugs in the institution or treatment programmes available to inmates. The most extensive coverage of prisoners' children was featured in Lockup: North Carolina Correctional Institution for Women (44 Blue Productions 2005), which is not surprising as motherhood is one of the main frames used in stories about women in prison (see Cecil 2007b). Overall, it appears that instead of giving viewers insight into the problems faced by prisoners, the episodes focused more on their behaviour before and during imprisonment.

Prison Life

The images presented in Lockup provided insight into various aspects of prison life. The episodes focused on different units within the prison system from reception and orientation units and general population cell blocks to special cell blocks for mentally ill prisoners; however, the most commonly featured unit was the security housing unit (SHU) or segregation. Sixteen (88.9%) of the episodes featured segments on SHU. When featuring these units, Lockup informed viewers that the most violent prisoners, with charges ranging from gang involvement to assaulting other inmates, are housed in the SHU, with lengths of stay varying from 90 days to an indefinite period of time. While some of the inmates discussed the hardships of this type of confinement, in general the episodes fail to address the hazards of such confinement (see Toch 2001).

Twelve episodes (66.6%) contained segments on the death penalty and death row. The episodes that did not contain these segments featured prisons that do not have death row or prisons in states without the death penalty. The most common topics regarding death row were the history of the death row in that institution, the process of an execution, and how inmates deal with living on death row and their impending executions.

The majority of episodes (83.3%, 15 episodes) featured some information on treatment programmes for inmates; however, attention to these programmes was typically fleeting. The most common type of treatment programme featured was work-related programmes including vocational training and correctional industries. Eight (53.3%) of these episodes depicted this type of treatment programme. The second most commonly mentioned treatment programme was education, which was featured in five (33.3%) of these episodes, followed by faith-based programmes (26.7%, four episodes) and drug treatment (20.0%, three episodes). Other inmate programmes featured in Lockup were: sports, music, anger management, re-entry programmes, mediation, moral reconation therapy, and boot camp. While not a lot of attention is paid to inmate programmes, the programmes featured most often in the series are those that are the most common in America's prisons (see General Accounting Office 2001).

Many episodes of Lockup featured topics which are synonymous with prison life, particularly institutional violence, gangs and sex. All of the episodes discussed institutional violence, giving examples of both inmate-on-inmate and inmate-on-staff violence. Prison violence is a fact of life; however, only about one-quarter of inmates report being assaulted by another inmate (Wolff et al. 2007). Despite this fact, Lockup featured many topics directly and indirectly related to institutional violence.

Related to many discussions of institutional violence was the topic of prison gangs. Approximately 72.2% (n=13) of episodes featured discussions of gangs within the institution. When tackling the topic of prison gangs, various topics were covered including gang structure, tattoos and symbols, as well as how gangs create violence within the prison walls and how prisons deal with gangs. According to Knox (2005), one-quarter of inmates entering prison are gang members and it is estimated that gang members account for 26.3% of inmate violence. So, while prison gangs and violence are certainly issues that prison administrators must face, the extensive coverage they were given in this series over-emphasises the problem.

A prison-related topic commonly discussed is sex; however, this issue was not a common feature in these episodes of Lockup. Slightly more than half of the episodes (55.6%, n=10) discussed the issue of prison sex, but rarely addressed sexual assault behind bars. In most cases, Lockup featured homosexual inmates discussing sexual relations behind bars. While the exact number of inmates who have engaged in sexual activities, whether consensual or forced, is not known (Hensley 2000), statistics indicate that the most commonly-reported type of non-consensual sexual activity behind bars is sexual misconduct by staff, followed by inmate-on-inmate sex (Beck and Harrison 2006). But these topics were not addressed in the episodes examined.

Inherent in the segments on prison life were lessons about the inmate social system. In some episodes viewers learn about the structure of the prison hierarchy, elements of the convict code and even how inmates circumvent prison rules. These elements are imbedded in the stories that the staff and inmates tell on camera and are not necessarily the main focus of any segments presented in this series, which instead focused on how the institutions deal with this problematic population.

Discussion and Conclusion

The images that people receive about prison are vital in shaping their understanding of these institutions. Wilson and O'Sullivan (2004) believe that prisons exist as they do because the public does not comprehend the true nature of these institutions. They argue that giving prisoners a ‘voice’ is one way to get people to listen and to demand change. Programmes such as Lockup are one way to give the general public this insight; however, whether this information will create a desire for change is dependent on two factors – the images producers create for the viewing audience and the attitudes and beliefs of the viewers who choose to watch this particular type of programme. The focus of this study has been on the images presented; therefore, this factor will be discussed in detail.

The genre from which programmes such as Lockup are derived limits the ability of these programmes to show the unadulterated truth about the prison system. Reality crime programmes are collaborative projects between the media and the criminal justice agency; therefore, producers ‘cannot or will not exercise independent and cultural judgment’ on the agency they are featuring (Cavender and Fishman 1998, p.11). In fact, Surette (2007) argues that if correctional infotainment existed, the entertainment aspect of the programming would undermine the ability of these images to lead to a better view of the correctional system. After examining the depiction of prisons on Lockup we can conclude whether the images presented in this series can be expected to lead to a deeper understanding of the prison system and its problems or whether these images support the current use of imprisonment in the United States.

The images presented in Lockup offer a limited view of prisons in the United States. By focusing on large maximum-security institutions, this programme introduces viewers to some of the most problematic prisons. While these institutions exist within the system they are not representative of the population. Even the aspects of the prison routine highlighted in this series reinforce the need to lock people up in this manner. Most of the programmes featured extensive segments on supermax housing units used for the most troublesome inmates. These segments were more common than those on inmate treatment programmes, the real problems facing prisoners or even positive stories about well-adjusted prisoners.

Lockup not only offers a limited view of the types of prisons, but also of those incarcerated. The emphasis is on violent offenders serving atypical sentences. This is a replication of fictionalised accounts of prisoners, which focus on violent inmates (see Britton 2003). This programme takes it one step further by featuring some of the most outrageous inmates in the system. For example, Lockup: Utah State Prison (44 Blue Productions 2005) featured Curtis Allgier, a skinhead whose body and face are covered with tattoos.2 Showing offenders like Allgier is a technique commonly used in reality crime programming. Focusing on offenders with physical stigmata, such as excessive tattooing, is a way to reinforce the image of ‘the other’ (Cavender 1998). This technique is used throughout Lockup; whether through their crimes (such as Frank Street, junior, in Lockup: Wabash, who ate his mother's brain after killing her), their physical features, their demeanour, or even the comments they make on camera, it is clear that these people are different, thereby creating a safe amount of social distance between prisoners and the audience.

Similar to fictionalised accounts of prison (see Britton 2003) Lockup focuses heavily on the violent nature of the prisoners while they are incarcerated, with institutional violence being a major feature of each episode examined. For example, Lockup: Return to Pelican Bay (44 Blue Productions 2005) and Lockup: Spring Creek (44 Blue Productions 2006), feature very different institutions, yet the focus of each episode is violence by inmates.

Lockup: Return to Pelican Bay (44 Blue Production 2005) begins with the following introduction by the host, John Seigenthaler:

[e]ver since it opened in 1989, Pelican Bay State Prison in northern California has always had a reputation as one of the most violent and volatile penitentiaries in the nation. When we first visited the institution in 2000 it was under lockdown, still reeling from one of the worst prison riots in U.S. history. Five years later we went back inside Pelican Bay where the staff has worked to curb gang activity and prevent violent outbreaks, but in an environment simmering with bitter rivalries and racial tension, finding any long-term solution is a never ending battle.

With an introduction such as this, it is not surprising that the focus of this episode is institutional violence. With the exception of the last segment in the episode, each focused on issues related to violence within the prison. The first featured gangs and racial tension in the prison, which was followed by a segment on the 2000 riot and the changes that have taken place since its occurrence. During the third segment the focus was on the ‘police’ force working within the institution to curb violence and investigate crimes. The fourth segment featured the SHU used to house gang members, which led into the fifth segment that showed how gang members in SHU circumvent the rules to still run their gangs. The final section focused on the transitional housing unit that is used to deprogramme gang members.

Lockup: Spring Creek (44 Blue Production 2006), on the other hand, presents an institution that is proud of its low level of institutional violence. Early in the episode, Sergeant Ed Massey states:

We have assaults but they're not as many as like the lower 48. You know we have the same mind set; we have the same type of criminals. Here they'll walk up and talk to you and we'll deal with their issues and problems and, you know, we help them out as much as we can.

Thus, one would not expect the episode to feature many examples of institutional violence, yet a couple of frames later the camera cuts to the investigation of a physical altercation between two inmates. This is followed by segments on troublesome inmates in solitary confinement, discussions of inmate-on-staff violence, unpredictable mentally ill inmates, and the only murder to take place within the prison. It is not until midway through the fourth segment that the focus of the episode changed to treatment. The fourth segment ended with victim-offender mediation, while the fifth segment focused on treatment programmes available to both youthful and adult prisoners. The episode ends with a discussion of violence within the institution by considering possible reasons for the low levels of violence experienced at that prison. Thus, while this episode does include some discussions of treatment within the institution, the main focus is still on the issue of institutional violence, similar to the episode on Pelican Bay.

In general, media representations of crime tend to focus on violence (for example, Garofalo 1981; Lundman 2003; Schlesinger, Tumber and Murdock 1991), thus it is not surprising that Lockup repeats this formula. The infotainment genre to which Lockup belongs is infused with characteristics of the entertainment media. The story must be exciting and hold the attention of an audience which has so many viewing options. Violent institutions and prisoners are more entertaining than typical prisons and inmates. It is these elements that work against the ability of programmes such as Lockup to truly inform viewers about the current state of imprisonment in the United States.

According to Altheide (1997), the problem frame is commonly used in programmes incorporating entertainment styling. Framing an issue as a problem generates fear. News reports can promote fear through their stories on crime and punishment, which is done by emphasising ‘certain characteristics of “abusers” and then showing how policing activities serve to protect’ us (Altheide 2002, p.134). The images used by the producers of Lockup fit neatly into this equation. This programme shows inmates who are scary looking, sometimes mentally ill, and many times violent in terms of the crimes that landed them in prison and/or in their behaviour while incarcerated. These ‘characters’ are securely locked up in prisons, which contain cell blocks that serve as prisons within prisons for those who cannot be handled in the general population of a maximum-security institution. And, since most of these inmates are serving unusually long sentences, including life sentences and death sentences, viewers can feel somewhat secure in knowing that these inmates do not pose an immediate threat. Media critic, Steve Gorelick, reinforces this conclusion in his discussion of reality-prison programming. He states that the message is a simple one: ‘Prisoners are animals. Prisons are zoos’ (Gorelick 2008, p.2).

According to Cavender (1998): ‘[a]mid an already pervasive fear of crime, reality programming's depictions of criminal may encourage more repressive crime policies’ (p.80; see also, Nellis 2006), which is certainly the case of the images presented on Lockup. Showing viewers some of the most violent prisons and featuring some of the most violent inmates not only creates fear, it further reinforces support for this type of imprisonment. While this story could not be told in this manner if these institutions and inmates did not exist, the story is incomplete. While the intention of the producers is to unlock the gates and present an unbiased view of prison life, this is not completely the case. This series ignores the realities of most of the people incarcerated in our prison system, the institutions they are incarcerated in and the critical issues they face.

This is the point at which one should consider the viewing audience. While Wilson and O'Sullivan (2006) argue that depicting the true nature of prisons should incite viewers to demand change, King and Maruna (2006) would argue that this is dependent on the attitudes and views the audience has before watching such programmes. They argue that punitive beliefs are supported by the media stories viewers choose to watch. Those who hold more punitive attitudes will choose to watch media representations that essentially support or reinforce their pre-existing beliefs (King and Maruna 2006). If the viewers of Lockup and other similar programmes are more likely to lean toward more punitive attitudes then changing the nature of the programmes would not have the desired effect. Currently not much is known about Lockup's viewing audience. Some viewers post comments on the Internet;3 however, there is not enough information to determine the viewers' pre-existing views. Future research examining viewers of this programme as well as other televised prison documentaries would be an important step to further our understanding of the impact of these images.

In sum, the view of imprisonment given through the images presented in Lockup clearly supports current crime control policies by failing to address the general prison population. Whether Lockup's depiction of prison is unique for its genre is unlikely, but remains to be seen. This study is the first small step toward understanding the images presented to the general public in televised documentaries; however, there is more to the story. Future research will delve into the latent content featured in this series and ultimately other televised prison documentaries, as well as examine the attitudes and beliefs of the people who choose to watch these programmes. In the meantime, it is in the hands of those most familiar with the correctional system to find ways to present stories about prison to the general public in a more straightforward and unadulterated manner.


  1. 1 The History Channel's Big House series debuted in 1998; however, this series had a different focus from Lockup. Each episode took a historical look at some of the most famous prisons in the United States, including Alcatraz and Sing Sing.

  2. 2 Curtis Allgier recently made headlines after he murdered a correctional officer and escaped during a medical visit in the community (Associated Press 2007).

  3. 3 For example, in August 2008, a Lockup discussion group led by Elise Warner, an executive producer of the show, was created on http://www.newsvine.com. Currently there are only 73 members of this discussion group and not enough comments posted to draw any conclusions.