TV and the internet are bringing the outside in

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It is a revolution that is changing the way prisoners see themselves – and view the world outside.

For University of Leicester Professor Yvonne Jewkes, of the renowned Department of Criminology, watching TV won’t be quite the same again.

She has studied the way prisoners watch TV – or ‘consume the media’ to use academic parlance – and it is not quite the same as you and I.

She said: “Although many would regard television as a medium of transparency and openness, and the prison as an archetypal example of closure and secrecy, I found the relationship between the two to be much more subtle and complex than this – certainly the popular press’s view that in-cell TV is a perk that encourages prisoners to while away their time in purposeless inactivity is pretty wide of the mark.

“While it was not particularly surprising to find that prisoners’ use of media is shaped by the coercive requirements of the institution, it was interesting to discover how some individuals used media texts and technologies as a source of empowerment and as a resource to help them adapt to life in prison, adopt an acceptable identity, and enhance their sense of self.

“The very personal meanings and memories that individual prisoners attached to particular TV shows, radio programmes or songs left a lasting impression on me.”

The paradox of prisons is central to the work of Yvonne as she juxtaposes the role of the media as advocates of freedom and transparency with that of prisons as archetypal examples of closure and secrecy.

Yvonne’s research has been concerned with the relationship between media consumption and power relations in prison. The research was conducted over a period when in-cell television was being debated, piloted, rejected (when Michael Howard was Home Secretary) and then, eventually, introduced as an earned privilege across most of the prison estate.

Now she is developing and broadening this area of interest to the study of Internet access in prisons.

She said: “Currently only seven prisons allow inmates access to the Internet, and it is heavily restricted and regulated. It is not difficult to imagine how great the impact of ‘new’ media technologies such as the Internet could be on the experience of imprisonment. In their ability to liberate users from physical time and place, and to bring the outside inside, the potential benefits of computer-mediated communications to prisoners are incalculable.

“In practical terms, access to computers, email and the Internet would allow users in prison to interact with potential employers, public sector organisations that might help with particular issues such as housing prior to release, and increased contact with lawyers. The Internet could be an immensely valuable tool for the Prison Service in handling fragmented and fragile relationships, would enable prisoners to keep in contact with their children and other family members, and could also provide prisons with a wider range of resources for delivering effective courses.

“This has become an especially pressing problem since the biggest provider of degree courses in prisons moved to online delivery a couple of years ago. Not only does the lack of Internet access preclude degree level study, but many prisoners are not allowed to possess CD-ROMs or DVDs because the discs are considered potential weapons for assault or self-harm. Consequently, they have to make do with simulated tutorials that are loaded onto their computers rather than the real thing.”

Yvonne became interested in the Internet and cyber crime simply as an extension of her work in the area of media and crime.

She said: “Ten years ago there were very few criminologists who were researching or writing about the cyber world and, somewhat surprisingly, this is still the case although there are a few more of us now.

“But online crime is still absent from most major criminology textbooks which I believe is an omission given the increasing number of high-profile, salaciously-reported Internet offences that have come to public attention via the pages of the popular press.

“I can’t claim to be an expert when it comes to the technology. I’m more interested in the social impacts of the Internet. I’ve also written quite extensively about the policing of cyber crimes and the particular problems associated with the regulation and policing of abusive images of children on the Internet.

“In general though, I’m an optimist when it comes to computermediated communications. The constant drip of frankly astonishing stories about the Internet’s potential to corrupt, fed to us by a popular media baying for tougher laws to deal with cyber-offenders, has to be put into perspective.”

It is now fairly well established that media are integral to how we make sense of the world, and that misrepresentations concerning the extent of certain types of crime and the effectiveness of the criminal justice system can create a skewed picture of crime and punishment. In her book Media and Crime (2004, Sage) Yvonne attempted to bring together the literatures and key theoretical approaches from the two fields, and aims to reflect the symbiotic relationship between media and crime which, after all, are two of the most pervasive features of contemporary life.

Her combined research interests also led to her founding a new academic journal in 2006 with colleagues in London (Dr Chris Greer, City University) and the United States (Professor Jeff Ferrell, Texas Christian University). Crime, Media, Culture: An International Journal is published by Sage (http://cmc.sagepub.com) and is intended for those researchers who work at the intersections of criminological and cultural inquiry. It promotes a broad cross-disciplinary understanding of the relationship between crime, criminal justice, media and culture, and “the journal strongly encourages graduate students to submit their work – not only full-length articles but also shorter research notes which can be more along the lines of ‘work in progress’.” Yvonne was delighted that in 2006 CMC received the prestigious Association of Learned and Professional Society Publishers/ Charlesworth Award for ‘Best New Journal.’

She has recently published three books on imprisonment - Handbook on Prisons (2007, Willan), Dictionary of Prisons and Punishment, with Jamie Bennett (Willan, 2008) and Prison Readings, with Helen Johnston (Willan, 2006). Yvonne is currently working on a revised second edition of Media and Crime (Sage) and is also producing for Sage two major three-volume works on Prisons and Punishment and Crime and Media. This year she also hopes to bid for research funding to carry out a study of prison architecture and design, and the impact they have on the lives of prisoners and prison staff.

She said: “The theme that brings all my research interests together and gives it some kind of coherence is an interest in identity: how masculinity is ‘performed’ in men’s prisons; how lifers manage their identity through a disrupted life course; the possibilities that prisoners could nurture their identities as parents, partners, skilled workers, students, etc, if they were allowed access to the Internet; how new communication technologies permit individuals to create, transform, play with, or steal identities; the extent to which prison design influences the lives of prisoners, prison staff, and those in the community in which the prison is located. I have a sociological imagination which underpins and informs all my academic output.”

Yvonne Jewkes joined the Department of Criminology in November 2007. Prior to this she was Reader in Criminology at the Open University.

She said: “Being appointed Professor of Criminology at the University of Leicester is a huge honour for me and a particular thrill as it was here that I started my academic career. I studied for my Masters degree in Mass Communications Research at the University of Leicester in 1989. I hadn’t thought about becoming an academic but I saw a research post advertised at the Centre for the Study of Public Order (now the Department of Criminology) so I went for it and it was here that my interest in criminology started to develop. It was rather a baptism of fire for a recent graduate – my first experience of teaching was on the MA programmes in Policing and Public Order and the vast majority of our students were from the criminal justice professions, including many fairly senior police officers. I was also the designated ‘media’ specialist within the department which entailed everything from teaching about media constructions of public disorder, to producing a satellite TV programme about policing as part of a pan-European distance learning initiative.”

Yvonne has also taught Media Studies at the former Leicester Polytechnic (now De Montfort University) and gained her PhD from the Institute of Criminology at Cambridge.

Source: By University Of Leicester

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