Television’s Role in the Prison Industrial Complex
Americans have a large appetite for television shows about police, violent crime investigations, dramatic court hearings and life in prison. It seems like there are endless options of shows about these topics because the demand is so high. I am not exempt from this; personally, some of my favorites were Criminal Minds, Brooklyn 99 and Mindhunter. But this past summer amid protests against police brutality, I began to grapple with the harm that has been caused by the massive wave of crime television since the 1980s, despite my love for them.
With any piece of media you consume, one of the most important things you must remember is that what you are seeing is not reality. Shows such as Law & Order, CSI, and Chicago P.D. are written from a perspective that is not an accurate representation of the criminal justice system in the United States. These shows depict a world of police saviors, fighting crime and chaos, saving us from criminals that would otherwise disrupt our properly functioning society. All they want to do is put away violent people and make the world a better place. But this is a lie.
Most police shows are dishonest about the amount of corruption and brutality that officers bring into communities. They normalize a system that is inherently racist and violent, with origins as slave patrols and current ties to white supremacist organizations. The ‘good cops’ who save the day at the end of every episode are not who most Black Americans see when we are stopped by the police. Those were not the cops that killed Breonna Taylor, George Floyd or Aiyana Stanley Jones. The indoctrinating images of superhero police departments make it easier for Americans to call violent cops ‘bad’ apples, but in reality, police departments in the United States kill civilians at much higher rates than other wealthy countries such as Canada and Australia.
Not only do these television shows inaccurately depict the police, they also perpetuate harmful myths about people of color in marginalized neighborhoods. Entertainment media often overrepresents violent crime and Black and Brown suspects, compared to white-collar crime and White suspects. These narratives gloss over the effects of white supremacy and lack of access as a result of institutionalized and systemic racism and capitalism that have legitimized these communities as “crime-ridden.”
Beyond perceptions of policing within communities of color, the media’s portrayals of the prison industrial complex, and the workers within it, contribute to the widespread acceptance of mass incarceration and police brutality in the U.S. For example, in nearly every episode of the fifteen season television series, Criminal Minds, FBI agents who specialize in high-level crimes committed by serial criminals are presented with a case that they need to solve. The episode structure is usually the same: the team arrives at the scene, and soon another crime is committed by the same person so they feel the pressure to find the suspect before someone else is harmed. This indicates that if the FBI weren’t working around the clock to find them, more crime occurs. Viewers watching continue to believe that they need more police officers and federal agents in their town to keep them safe, even though the crimes depicted in the media are significantly less severe than the survival crimes committed in said neighborhoods — such as food theft as a survival tactic, which the system causes by keeping civilians from these resources in the first place.
In addition to the desire to have more policing, we begin to accept police brutality as part of the job to ensure the safety of others. In one episode of Criminal Minds, an unarmed man who is suspected of sexual assault is shot and killed by an agent after he is released from questioning. The agent lies and says she killed him in self-defense. We are left to empathize with the FBI agent because his murder is better than the possibility of him committing another crime. We have to deconstruct this way of thinking. Why is execution the only way we can keep communities safe? We must also recognize that no matter how law enforcement feels about individuals they interact with, they should not have the power to be the judge, jury and executioner. If they can justify violence against that man, they can do the same against anyone.
In addition to media affecting society’s attitudes about how police officers should treat citizens, they also impact why we think we need police officers in the first place. In her New York Times article, “Yes, We Mean Literally Abolish the Police,” Mariame Kaba reminds us that the police don’t do what most people think they do. The average police officer only makes one felony arrest in a year. Most of their time is spent responding to noncriminal issues. The media portrayals of communities full of violence and cops running to the rescue and directly restoring the peace have contributed to the support of harsher policing on the streets and more prisons in urban areas when there isn’t any need. In fact, these shows fail to display the consequential harm that police bring into Black communities such as extreme violence, family separation, mental and physical abuse, school to prison pipelines and so on.
I’m not saying everyone has to stop watching any television show or film that features police or detectives because that would be essentially impossible. But I implore you to understand the vast differences between what is depicted on the screen versus the reality of the PIC and what Black Americans experience daily. Remember that media industries are capitalizing on and reinforcing a system that has been harming the image and lives of Black and Brown people for decades. As someone who believes in the abolition of the PIC as a whole, I know how powerful a tool imagination is. We must be able to reimagine a world in which police and prisons do not exist because they are not needed. We could create a world where community members care for each other and police budgets are redistributed into social programs. We have to understand the realities within our own communities instead of relying on crime television to tell us about our own communities.