Fact or fiction? TV shows portrayals of prisons

Article written by
Emma Thorpe
November 9, 2022

Prisons and prison life have been subject to many different depictions by the media, via various outlets. Focusing on televisions portrayal of prisons provides a good insight as this form of mass media has arguably the largest global audience. For many people across the world, prison is not something they have a personal experience with. This creates an opportunity for the media to in some way shape an individual’s perception of prisons and those incarcerated. Amongst Criminologists, this is an issue of great concern and has been a contributing factor to a lot of the research carried out under the scope of media and crime. TV allows viewers to immerse themselves in to fictitious and non-fictitious prison shows with great convenience.

There are many, very popular fictional TV shows based around prisons. To name just a few; prison break, oz, time, prisoner, bad girls, orange is the new black and Wentworth. Prison Break, the American TV series, has to be one of my favourites. In some ways, aspects of this show portrays the brutality faced by some prisoners, but mostly dramatizes and sensationalises the prison experience. Prison break averaged 9.2 million viewers per week during season 1. This series is not based on reality, and although it may seem obvious it is important that viewers don’t get too swept up in the almost romanticising of prisons and view these types of shows with a mindset that they are in no way real. There are an abundance of fictional TV shows that are based in prisons, many focusing on men, although not exclusively. Another top pick of mine is Bad Girls, a British drama series broadcasted on ITV 1 from 1991 – 2006. Bad Girls was a massive hit with viewers, dubbed a ‘thought provoking’ drama series, focusing on prisoners and prison officers, known in the show as ‘screws’. Bad Girls was undoubtedly my first impression as a child, of women’s prisons and probably prisons in general. It wasn’t until later in life that I realised this was not a clear representation of prisons and nor was it really meant to be.

Not all prison-based TV series are fictitious, non-fiction TV series are my favourites. The mass media significantly contribute to the way in which the general public view both prisons and prisoners and non-fiction shows arguably provide the best real-life representations. A personal favourite is, Inside the World’s Toughest Prisons, available on Netflix. This series provides an insight in to prison systems and prisoners across the world, in different societies and cultures. The immersion of current presenter and RRF founder, Raphael Rowe, in to a particular prison, allows viewers to be presented with a completely different and realistic view of prisons and prison life. Living amongst prisoners in their prison environment and interacting with them is truly unique. This series reached top 10 on Netflix and is largely credited for not being sensationalised or staged. Another factual TV series aired on Channel 4 called Prison. The show spanned 2 seasons, one in a male prison and one in a female prison, both in England. Although less personal and not as raw as Inside the World’s Toughest Prisons, it did give viewers a good insight in to life in two UK prisons, which are notoriously secretive. The thing I liked most about Prisons, was the harsh reality displayed about the drug problem HMP Durham were facing.

The kind of media representation broadcast on TV can have a real impact on the way that members of the general public view prisoners and prisons. This can in turn have a significant impact on the way in which the public relate to them and can ultimately make it harder to reintegrate prisoners back in to society if the general public have unrealistic views about them. I think in general it is important to take fictional TV shows with a pinch of salt and balance out your views by engaging with non-fictious representations. 

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