- 1 “Chief doctor at the La Santé prison” (Le Cherche Midi Éditeur, Paris), on sale the following week (...)
- 2 Article 720-1-A, Code of Penal Procedure, Article 129 Law on presumption of innocence, 15th June 2 (...)
- 3 “The book’s revelations are horrible and might well be the origin for the creation of the two parl (...)
1On 13 January 2000 the newspaper `Le Monde´ published two pages of extracts from a book by Véronique Vasseur1. Six months later a law was passed proclaiming: “MPs and senators have the right to visit any prison at any time”2. Soon after one could read the conclusions of two parliamentary enquiry commissions launched in February 20003 on the situation in French prisons and on prison conditions.
- 4 In qualitative and quantitative terms as follows: Front pages and articles. In the first fortnigh (...)
- 5 The press corpus is composed of all articles published: between the 1st January and the 31st Decem (...)
- 6 Cécile Prieur, ‘Le Monde’ journalist responsible for the section ‘Justice’, interview made on 20 J (...)
- 7 Rue de la santé, 14th arrondissement. It is the only prison located in the capital, Paris.
2These events took place as part of the French public debate under the form of a so-called ‘media window’. Indeed, during the first six months of the year 2000, the prison question occupied an important part4 of press themes5. One of the various explanatory causes for this phenomenon is cyclical: “It was the beginning of January, which is a kind of empty period for news6”. Moreover, the fact that the La Santé prison has a strategic location in Paris7 should not be discounted since this facilitates the task of the centralized national newspapers and reduces their costs.
3Harold Lasswell´s formulation “Who says what to whom and with what effects?” (Balle, 1972) may help to understand the mechanism of media processes. However, although the originators - the press and the prison administration - are visible, and the media effects are known and acknowledged (Derville, 1997), it remains a complex matter to define the effect of the broadcast message on its potential receivers.
4In fact, reception by ´public opinion´ (Bourdieu, 1973) is a media-political alibi to persuasively present the necessity for the diffusion of information: “The ‘public opinion’ is a professional ideology which represents only those who refer to it. It is the expression of opinion on politics by small social groups whose profession it is to produce opinions.” (Champagne, 1990, p.47).
- 8 ‘das Verstehen’ in a Weberian meaning.
5We shall try to describe the dynamic relation between these two agencies of social control - the prison system and the press – the one emanating from the State, the other private. Firstly, there is the issue of the insertion of the prison topic into a complex media configuration and, secondly, the exploitation of this issue by newspapers, and, lastly, the development of a perspective about the significations that are involved. We will seek to understand8 the fundamentals, structures and consequences of the media-presented prison.
- 9 The ´New York Times`: “All the news that’s fit to print”.
6Prison, as a main topic of debate, had to face a media scene engaged in a period of transformation characterised by the appearance of news magazines, the thematic split of publications, the presence of free daily newspapers, the continuous offer of regional and local newspapers, and the precarious equilibrium of the financial situation. There are many characteristics of the press world that argue for the broader statement that the current trend leads to a “decline of information in the media” (Charon, 1991, p.36). The transformation consists of a marketing of information in a growing commercial system (Le Floch, Sonnac, 2000). The profit-oriented situation imposes a demand for news as consumer goods9. It is within the framework imposed by these mechanisms that the prison question appeared in the media.
- 10 “The prison administration is not good at communicating”, “I am currently modifying the informatio (...)
7Once integrated into the public arena, the prison wants to sell itself10. This demands a new configuration of the prison field and its position in relation to the media exercise. Following the same rules, but aiming at a different goal, the media want to sell the prison – hence the formulation of market driven journalism.
8The trend towards low cost news-gathering puts the prison at a disadvantage because it is an expensive field of investigation in temporal, relational, professional, and technical terms by reason of requiring access authorisations, its diversity of structure, the confidentiality imposed on staff, the asocialised prison population, etc.
- 11 That is, stories that allow for previously prepared broadcasting.
- 12 Such as new school terms, presidential elections, Nobel prize ceremony, etc.
9On the other hand, prison is contra-productive in relation to journalistic downsizing policies. Prison does not fit into the journalistic routine. It does not proceed from anticipated stories11, since there is no regular event tempo12.
- 13 ‘Le Monde’ during the first three months of the year 2001.
- 14 Suicide, breaking-out, famous criminals (e.g. Patrick Henry, Maurice Papon, etc.).
- 15 One article of two columns and five dispatches in January, nothing in February, and three dispatch (...)
10For the prison to win media value it must acquire the status of newsworthiness. By analysing press references to prisons during a calm media period13 we can see what constitutes an event for journalists, namely brief facts or (in)famous persons14, and then see how much space it is given - usually just a few lines15. It appears from our study and that of Ericson (1989, p.11) that the prison is rarely given media space.
- 16 ‘Libération’, described by some as the ‘Observatoire International des Prisons’ newspaper´, offeri (...)
11Finally, prison news has to fit into the concept of ‘low objectionability’ that consists in giving news the tenor of which has its roots in a collective agreement so as to avoid any social rift16.
12Difficulties for actors claiming a publicising role lie in the integration of these constraints in the media field without losing sight of the setting of an agenda under which the importance of a news event for an audience is mainly conditioned by the importance first given to it by the journalists themselves (Charron, 1994).
- 17 Prieur, see above.
- 18 Cf. the ‘open doors’ day organized at the prison ´La Santé` on the 15 January 2000.
- 19 Cf. the research of Christian Carlier for a historical perspective, or that of Antoinette Chauvene (...)
- 20 Media do also have their own logic: “They […] focus on bad news – on what has gone wrong, on failu (...)
13The launching of the theme ‘prison’ and its maintenance in the media sphere necessitates a strategy of development. To the marketing policy of a book, author and its publisher it is necessary to add the activity of the press medium: “...It is editorial policy, with clearly a commercial interest behind it, to catch readers. To create an event means also to do some serialisation17”. To make the prison into an event results from an interaction with the prison administration18 since even “news is a product of transactions between journalists and their sources” (Ericson, 1989, p.377). In fact, inspired by a reform trend, already beginning in the 1980s, and by various political speculations, the former government wanted to initiate a public debate on prison conditions. The discontents of prison staff having persisted for decades19 and with many prisons about to be renovated or dismantled, a collective opinion existed to denounce the status quo20. A consensus sprang up but it was left to the prison administration as the executive institution of penal orientation to accept the criticisms and enter into the communication game.
14Nevertheless, whether arising from a defensive strategy or a lack of means or graduated goals for the media specificities, there are many factors in a communication that remain hidden. Each actor must adapt his own communication behaviour to mark his position, to break free from others and to attract attention from the media. All this requires an important mobilization of resources.
15Media competition stamps its economic print on the various actors involved in the prison field.
- 21 Note in this connection that few journalists are specialised and/or the lack of interest given to (...)
- 22 As an example of the weak resources mobilized: in a news magazine, the person in charge of the the (...)
16On the one hand there are the journalists who move in a professional environment characterized by the split in their status and their working conditions21. The present situation can be considered a “new proletarianization”, in which the journalist corps looks like a “precarious intelligentsia” (Accardo, 1998). The lack of means at their disposal weakens their ability to work22.
- 23 Hence the source value to the media of a book such as Véronique Vasseur´s. The author is a doctor- (...)
17On the other hand the sources used must have an effective productivity and be capable of abundantly feeding the media in a graduated way – providing therewith security and credibility. They must be authorized sources making for authority of pronouncement. Their message must be at one and the same time newsworthy defined as “available, useable and attractive” (Derville, 1997). According to Gandy (1982), journalists use ‘information subsidies’. The source delivers information ‘for immediate use’, ready for exploitation, which means that a piece of work is already done23. The most important sources are the official ones - the primary interpreters and definers. They possess a monopoly on the categories of information that are essential to understand an issue. Without them, the issue cannot be plainly discerned since the key information is lacking. In addition the source must demonstrate articulateness (Gans, 1982) with an ability to present a clear and distinct exposé. This is why Ericson et al. consider that “the news is primarily a public conversation between journalists and government officials” (1991, p.349).
- 24 They cannot block roads, dump dung in front of official buildings, or go on strike against childbi (...)
18When a potential speaker does not fulfil these requirements, the solution is often a disturbing movement towards journalistic emphases (Molotch, Lester, 1974). The prison does not fit into this scheme. In fact, prison actors – prison officers, social workers, teachers, etc. – have no resources to disturb the social order and thus to be incorporated into the media environment24. The under-representation of prison people on the media scene limits the spectrum of available information.
- 25 This is also true of the extracts published by the press from Véronique Vasseur´s book; see footno (...)
19A large but dense space, media-centred strategies, unequal and inter-dependent actors - these conditions characterise an atrophy of much disseminated knowledge. This circular circulation of news reflects a regular and repetitive treatment of a panel of restricted issues25. The media-political field engenders misinformation by limiting possibilities to the emergence of marginal issues. Indeed, in addition to the lack of information or false information, “misinformation also includes the introduction of involuntary and innocent error conditioned by distance.” (Freund, 1991, pp.9-10). Thus, the perception of the prison is restricted to walking along a well-beaten track.
- 26 ‘Very Important Person’.
20New kinds of actor have appeared in the media game organized around the prison. These are the VIP26s, that is individuals recognised on the public scene not so much for their quality as for their social visibility.
- 27 ‘Le Nouvel Observateur’, 20/01/2000
21These VIP are taken up because they have at some time been imprisoned and thus have an experience of the prison. Newspapers quote them abundantly and devote interviews, even a full reportage27, to them - in contrast to former prisoners who remain unknown.
22The presence of these actors in the media can be explained in several different ways. On the one hand, a group reflex drives journalists to make use of experience obtained from a fringe, but socially proximate, population. Moreover, the discussion relates to known territory, something that facilitates the selection of sources. On the other hand, the rise of an increasingly propagated media scheme establishes a distortion of the system – ‘infotainment’, that is, a mixture of information and entertainment. This notion of news presentation adds an element of marketing to catch and please the audience by the appearance of ‘celebrities’ who owe their celebrity to the media. A third element is the occurrence of stardom within the journalist profession that echoes the need for media recognition of those actors with extended media resources (Wolton, 1997). This cultural proximity distorts the objective status that the media are supposed to possess and guarantee. The VIPs, with their media capital, keep the prison experience at a distance and neutralise the empathy that the ‘ordinary man’ could have had towards the ‘ordinary prisoner’.
- 28 ”Is the prison ´La Santé´ hell?” (‘La Croix’, 18/01/2000), “prison horror”
(‘Le Nouvel Observateur (...)
- 29 “Rats, cockroaches, vermin, rapes” (‘Le Monde’, 14/01/2000), “cockroaches, rats, vermin” (‘Le Mond (...)
- 30 It should be emphasized that the quotes from the various newspapers simply repeat those published (...)
23The second over-exposure of media reports about prisons concerns violence which, in its turn results in an over-determination of approaches to the phenomenon of the prison. We are faced with a unanimous press, especially apparent in the extracts that make up our data28. Violence also comes out from the selection of words used notably through emotive words29 going through the ‘choice morsels’ chosen by editors30.
- 31 This is the bias observed through an over-exploitation of the source ‘International Observatory of (...)
24The approximations of discourse and the caricature tone of reporting biases the opinions and knowledge that are formed concerning the prison. The representations of the prison become blurred and false. Even if violence is a main problem in the prison, the prison cannot be defined only as a place of violence31. This approach illustrates the major distortions that govern the relation of the media and the prison.
25We consider the prison to be a closed world and thus not very permeable to information exchange. This leads to a misjudgement of the object from that time onwards and an approach only through representations. That means through an “organizing and regulatory system of social interaction established around a very valuable object for various social groups” (Moliner, 1996, p.28). This relation under tension that binds prison actors and the media leads to a perverse effect since access to the prison is difficult for the media and for media access to prison actors. This produces a stigmatisation of the prison.
26“There is a perverse effect when two individuals (or more), while aiming at a certain goal, provoke an unwanted situation which could be undesirable for one or both of them” (Boudon, 1977, p.20). The partitioning of the prison is the result of a perverse effect that handicaps both internal and external actors and neglects the totalitarian character of the institution.
27The structural disorganization of prisoners is due as much to the media market’s hyper-competitive characteristics as to restrictions on their movement, possibilities for expression and material means. But the functional absence of organization among prisoners is susceptible of another explanation: “[…] a disorganized group of persons having a common interest, conscious of this interest and having the means to realize it, will, under general conditions, do nothing to promote it. The community of interest, even when it is taken for granted for everyone, is insufficient to provoke common action that makes possible the promotion of the interest of all. The logic of collective action and the logic of individual action are not one thing but two.” (Boudon, 1977, p.38).
28The conjunction of these phenomena results in a rejection of the prisoner and places him beyond the media debate.
- 32 Just one article deals with a former prisoner (‘La Voix du Nord’, 01/02/2000) and one article incl (...)
29The prisoner, seen through the prism of violence, then corresponds to the binary cliché victim/offender. He is considered through the instantaneity of the act. Contrariwise, having regard to our press corpus, other temporal dimensions of existence are not taken into account. The individual’s biography, his present time and his daily life in prison are absent from debates as is also his future 32.
30One explanation of this lack results from the journalistic slogan ‘no picture, no story’, and in consequence of the ethical obligation to respect the physical and patronymic anonymity of prisoners, they cannot speak for themselves. Thus prisoners are spoken about without being able to enter onto their own media stage. “They form a group because they have been classified into global categories. If common words or ideas are attributed to them, they will be those by which they were designated. The analysis or thinking is done from the outside; they are not asked about their own experience. Truth enlightens them from above.” (Foucault, 1973, p.8). On the other hand, with prisoners having no access to speech, former prisoners do not receive media attention.
31Being an actor without media resources, taking account of the average prisoner’s situation – being young, poor, without a vocational qualification – is weakened in favour of presenting imprisonment as if it were an event.
32Violent news on the prison offers a simplified representation of the prisoner. This stereotype – “a picture in our head” (Lippmann, in: Amossy, 1991, p.9) – represents a “preconceived idea, not acquired by experience, without a precise ground (…) that imposes itself on group members and with the possibility of reproducing itself without alteration.” (Sillamy, in: ibid., p.27).
33The prisoner, as soon as he is imprisoned, is categorized as deviant. Classification of social actors in generic terms is a form of reality control because the rules of game and players are easily identifiable. The danger of the mental and social organizing process is to set actors in a particular category “by stereotyping members of a group, one sees their characteristics that in fact derive from their attributed social status or roles as a fixed essence.” (Amossy, Herschberg Pierrot, 1997, p.38). Furthermore, it is difficult to have awareness of a personal and individual identity because the personal image of oneself is partly a mirror of affixed stereotypes (Mannoni, 1998).
34Another handicap for the prisoner is that his incarceration produces ways of thinking and acting that he will integrate and develop into new values in his future perceptions and behaviour in his social environment.
35To describe this process of normative change, the American sociologist Donald Clemmer has developed the concept of prisonization (Jacques Léauté calls it ‘détentionnalisation’, Guy Lemire ‘prisonniérisation’). The prisoner, unaware that his image is no more than a representation and not a personal reality, is confirmed in his role as deviant and will not react to what is a normative message. Indeed, “this message [produced by the penal system] is useful to maintain a social structure to the extent that it reinforces categorisations, fear reflexes and the assimilation of the idea of danger issuing from the ‘difference’ from certain social categories.” (Robert, Faugeron, 1978 , p.83). This negative under-estimation of imprisoned persons is nothing but a stigma imprinted by a total institution; the prisoner has to face “ the situation of an individual that something disqualifies and prevents from being fully accepted by society.” (Goffman, 1975, p.7).
36The debate on the totalitarian aspect of prison and on the significations and values of this totality is far from being over. Philippe Combessie correctly points out that “when it comes to the role of the prison in society, no matter from what point of view this question is dealt with, the impression is that prison keeps the basic characters of a total institution33” (in: Veil, Lhuilier, 2000, pp.96-97). The total institution, through its functions, dominates the field of communication.
37The prison world and the media maintain relations that could be considered at first sight to be contradictory. The former tends to separate individuals from the outside world whereas the latter has as leitmotiv free access to and knowledge of this world. However, a latent cooperation was developed in the ‘media window’ during the first six months of the year 2000 because the media process embraced both aspects: “All individuals involved in a field have a certain number of fundamental interests in common, that means everything that is linked to the very existence of the field; hence, an objective complicity which underlies all the antagonisms.” (Bourdieu, 1984, p.115).
38Media and prison actors propose and broadcast images and knowledge on prison in parallel and in this way they proceed to the construction of a double social structure composed of normality and normativeness. It is within this configuration that prison and media participate in the same reality, that of social control (Ericson, 1991, pp.3-4). Social control needs, produces and implies norms and values, which then define roles and ways of being (Padioleau, 1986). The problem consists in a deconstruction of this phenomenon because the print imposed by the prison perpetuates ways of thinking that always allow it to have a strong position within penal structures: “Claude Faugeron and Jean-Michel Le Boulaire have shown how, in the public debate, this mythical image of the prison regularly returns […]. The tight link that one often believes to exist between the instrument (imprisonment) and a judicial condemnation is more tenuous than would appear.” (Combessie, 2001, p.13).
- 34 “Why is prison still today the reference point for sentencing?”, interview in ‘L’Humanité’,17/02/2 (...)
39A second functional cooperation between the prison and media fields is the control of representations. These two institutions share the same logic, that is the control of the prison’s image. Now, the prison is the archetype of a social control institution. Its strength in collective thought as a tool of justice and a protection gives it an unmovable status, one that is symptomatic of anchored social symbols in society’s values34.
40The prison is “mediafied” to ensure a diffusion of control of the social order, a social order that achieves an equilibrium through the action of a violence/consent relation. Through the affirmation of the need for the prison are transmitted modes for functioning required by a group to justify its existence: discipline, hierarchy, respect for the law, the notion of repentance through legal suffering, criminalisation and blameworthiness of the act. These notions are the rules of organisation of the penitentiary institution. To set up the prison as the ultimate judicial solution is to admit for it the function of regulating social troubles established as dangerous for the social body.
- 35 The notion of abolition is not to be found in our review of newspapers.
41Media are vectors of the social body and ensure the liaison and the organization of its various parts in order to maintain an equilibrium between its functions. In order to keep this balance, they do not look for change because that is often synonymous with adaptation, which means the acquisition but also the loss of resources. Therefore, one can see why the discourse on the prison is stable following its appropriation to judicial incarceration - the dominating actors have few reasons to challenge a system in which they perform with little or only a minimum of constraints35.
- 36 The mobilisation of reform activists is mentioned only in the format of a short article, within tw (...)
42The hypertrophy of communication modes and means reduces the action margin of a traditional censorship (global, vertical and authoritarian). The censorship concerning the prison is at another level: “The symbolic censorship has for effect to prohibit or to depreciate any expression deviating from dominating definitions” (Accardo, 1998, p.48). Normalisation of the prison through the media argues in favour of a consensus on its role and place in a society: “The discourse of the consumer society is fundamentally in keeping with the register of depoliticised discourse as it removes legitimacy from conflict.” (Neveu, 1994, p.153). A functional characteristic of the total institution is to remove some disturbing actors from the social field, take them out of the media scene, and thereby prevent them from having free access to the public area36. We have seen, for example, that prisoners have no entry to public debate. In this environment of critical rarity, how shall the media present the fact that the prison is a tool of social control, how communicate the idea that “imprisonment is a useful, rather cheap and quite discreet mechanism, and its penal packaging leads to the belief that a fundamental reform has been undertaken […]” (Combessie, 2001, p.11)?
- 37 By taking ‘Le Monde’ as a standard of media activity, it is to be noted that for the period Januar (...)
- 38 On external control of prisons.
- 39 On the future of conditional release.
43This is the strength of the prison as a total institution – the self-generation of its own control modes and therewith the ensuring of the perennial character of its normative structures. The capacity of the system to administer itself without external help explains its resistance to change. While there is an insistence on prison conditions and resettlement work, the real execution of the rules of order that act as the carrier of the prison is not perceived. Discourses broadcast by the media are those of a prison where violence and emotional misery dominate. It can be surmised that this sudden and strong appearance in the media37 is the result of a political action in order to maintain the control and the goals of the penal system (Veil, Lhuilier, 2000, pp.9-28) at a time when its functioning was severely criticized by the Canivet38 and Farge39 working groups.
44We would like to refer here to a polemic idea of Michel Foucault: “In place of the statement that the prison fails to reduce crime, there might be substituted the hypothesis that the prison has truly succeeded in producing crime that is specific, useful, and politically or economically less dangerous as a form of illegality; in producing crime that is apparently marginal but centrally controlled; in making the offender into a pathological object.” (1981, p.282). The media prison is only a complement to this phenomenon. The offender is publicly labelled as such, sanctioned in his deviant status by the seal of authority that the media impress on all who are subject to their attentions. Whereas the prison– its walls, its staff, and its users – adapts itself with more or less difficulty to the media field, its substance has found in the contemporary media an optimal ground of expansion.
Translation : Helen Arnold