Social Worlds in 100 Objects, Themes and Ideas

The television: an electronic babysitter for the incarcerated?

Professor Yvonne Jewkes from the Department of Criminology investigates the use of televisions in prisons.

Why do you watch television? For relaxation? To doze in front of? To keep up with your favourite football team? The old Reithian ideal that TV should inform, educate and entertain (in that order) may be missing now that broadcasters cater largely to what Lord Reith disparagingly called the ‘lowest common denominator’ of public taste. But, in an era of X-Factor and TOWIE, do we seek more from television than we care to admit?

Social science research combining perspectives from criminological and media studies reveals that television has heightened significance for those in confinement. For years, personal TV sets in prison was a politically sensitive issue, with some critics claiming it pandered to an anti-social population who had forfeited the right to such ‘perks’. When finally introduced it was seen as a privilege to be earned through good behaviour, but social scientists noted that its benefits to the prison service were considerable, as in-cell TV reduced staffing costs. Fewer prison officers were required now that inmates could be locked in their cells with the ‘electronic babysitter’ to keep them quiet and ensure their compliance.

The importance that most prisoners assign to television is immense. In places where everyday life is sometimes described in terms of its ‘thinness’, access to media provides richness, colour and texture which are, in some ways, comparable to life outside. Popular shows among prisoners include nature documentaries for their vivid colours and sounds, and farming programs (Countryfile, One Man and His Dog), for the verdant, expansive landscapes and feelings of fresh air and freedom they bring to stale, airless cells painted institutional grey. Television also reinforces a sense of humanity, uniting the prison population with the wider society in common experience. When prisoners watch a Royal Wedding or big sporting occasion, they have a sense of us all being ‘under the same big sky’, diminishing their feelings of marginalisation.

Media analysis has shown that to those confined within prison, the capacity of mediated memories to ground notions of personal identity within contexts of national community and historical contingency may be especially significant. Memories evoked and shaped by media texts are an important part of the routine, politics and spectacle of everyday life and television can be central to people’s reminiscences of their former selves, deceased parents, ex- lovers, times past. Many inmates watch children’s TV, knowing that their own children are watching the same program at the same time. But the power of television to evoke the emotional content of relationships can also be especially painful, reinforcing feelings of loss and disconnection.

Whatever meanings we all attach to television – to entertain us, learn something new, fill time, relieve boredom, evoke memories or simply to ‘tune out’ of our everyday lives – are magnified in prison. However, criminologists have found that the introduction of in-cell TV also has significant downsides. Prisoners are locked up in their cells for longer, education has been curtailed, limits on personal property have been tightened and opportunities for social interaction have been curbed. For all its advantages to inmates, then, in-cell television is a ‘sweetener’ intended to mask or compensate for the stringent and restrictive security and control measures that have come to characterise contemporary imprisonment.

Professor Yvonne Jewkes

Research interests

  • Impact of architecture, design and technology on the lives of the prisoners and staff who occupy carceral spaces
  • Potential role of computer mediated technologies on the everyday lives and future prospects of prisoners

Supervisory interests

  • Prison architecture and design
  • The sociology of imprisonment
  • Crime, media and culture
  • Constructions of masculinities, identity and self

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