The Cultural Prison: Discourse, Prisoners, and Punishment

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The incarcerated in America's cultural imagination.

The Cultural Prison brings a new dimension to the study of prisoners and punishment by focusing on how the punishment of American offenders is represented and shaped in the mass media through public arguments. The study is based on an analysis of 642 articles collected by the author from American popular journals and magazines, as well as newspaper accounts, films, and public speeches, spanning the years 1950 to 1992. By piecing together and studying these popular narratives, he divides the history of prisoners and punishment into four eras, each marked by a shift in value system. He argues that the discourse, or rhetoric, surrounding prisoners and punishment on the public level works as a historical force that shapes contemporary culture.

The author is concerned that the public seems to have an inability or unwillingness to question or resist cultural definitions of normalcy and legal behavior. He explains that ideally moral behavior should be a matter of public debate rather than of unquestioned perpetuation, and he urges increased understanding of institutional and cultural discipline and our questioning the ways in which the constitution of punishment and prisoners influences us culturally.

The"cultural prison" refers to the way in which this study acts as an investigation of "the discipline of discipline"; it is an examination of the way in which discipline is shaped and formed in public discourse. The volume concludes with a fascinating account of the move to electronic means of surveillance; coupled with the representations of the prisoner along the lines of race and gender, it explains what these new techniques mean to contemporary culture.

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Editorial Reviews

From the Publisher
"Sloop's The Cultural Prison is a stunning analysis of the roles that race and gender play in the ways in which discipline and punishment are understood in contemporary American culture, as well as the implications such representations have for a wide range of public policy considerations. Moreover, the book is one of the first clear and compelling examples of the possibilities of a critical rhetoric that bridges the tension between the deconstructive impulse of poststructuralist cultural studies and the reconstructive impetus of rhetorical studies."
—John Louis Lucaites, Indiana University

"A fascinating study of the prisoner in America's cultural imagination."
—Maurice Charland, Concordia University

A study of popular cultural representations of prisoners, drawing on some 600 articles collected from American popular journals and newspapers, films, and public speeches from 1950 to 1992. Describes how prisoners and punishment have been represented in popular discourse, especially along the lines of race and gender, and traces the evolution of the view of the male prisoner as a patriotic Caucasian to a violent African-American. Annotation c. Book News, Inc., Portland, OR (
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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780817308223
  • Publisher: University of Alabama Press
  • Publication date: 7/28/1996
  • Series: Studies Rhetoric & Communicati Series
  • Edition description: New Edition
  • Pages: 256
  • Product dimensions: 6.30 (w) x 9.40 (h) x 1.00 (d)

Meet the Author

John M. Sloop is Professor and Chair-elect of the Department of Communication Studies and Theatre at Vanderbilt University and author of Disciplining Gender: Rhetorics of Sex Identity in Contemporary U.S. Culture.

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Table of Contents

1 Introduction: The Historical Force of Rhetoric and the Disciplinary Force of Culture 1
2 Prelude to the Present: American Histories of Punishment 19
3 Rehabilitation and the Altruistic Inmate, 1950-1959 31
4 The Inmate Divide: Rehabilitation and Immorality, 1960-1968 62
5 Rehabilitation, Revolution, and Irrationality, 1969-1974 90
6 The Meaning of Just Deserts: Valuing Our Discipline, 1975-1993 132
7 Conclusions, Beginnings: Into the Future 185
Appendix 1. Theoretical Perspectives 197
Appendix 2. Differentiating Eras of Discourse 200
Appendix 3. Percentage of Prisoners in State and Federal Prisons by Race and Gender 205
Notes 207
References 221
Index 241
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