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The Prison and the Public

Historically, prisons have aroused considerable public curiosity. Concealed from public view their internal worlds have kindled the public imagination and inspired a desire for knowledge about their hidden, unfamiliar spaces. Despite this interest, members of the public generally have little familiarity with custodial institutions and therefore remain physically and psychologically distant from the reality of penal incarceration.

The public are, as Michelle Brown (2013) describes, ‘penal spectators’ who develop a cultural understanding about prisons via popular sources rather than direct experience. For example, according to the 2011 British Crime Survey over 75% of the public stated they relied on mediated sources for their information about prisons and only a tiny fraction of this number considered that this type of information might be inaccurate.

Mediated sources of information include TV programmes, films, dramas, documentaries, reality TV programmes, news reports and other forms of popular representations such as prison museum sites. Through these means, the prison has become a form of popular entertainment and the public relationship with the prison has become voyeuristic in that the public are able to witness the unfamiliar and alien world of the prisoner from a safe distance and remain shielded from the most fundamental feature of punishment – the infliction of pain. Moreover, in mediated representations the realities of prison life are simplified and decontextualized, and when coupled with harsh political rhetoric, serve to consolidate misleading, superficial and punitive public perceptions about prisons, prisoners and punishment.

Dr Alana Barton is involved in an ongoing collaboration with Professor Alyson Brown (Department of English and History) looking into this contentious relationship between the prison and the public. For instance, in 2013 they organised a highly successful conference, entitled The Prison and the Public, at Edge Hill University and have edited two special editions of the Prison Service Journal around this theme. Through these forums, they have sought to uncover how the public might be connected to the realities of incarceration, past and present, in a more constructive and contextualised way. In addition, they have published papers on the power of prison imagery (with a specific emphasis on Dartmoor Prison) in the public consciousness and on the prison as a form of ‘dark tourism’. Their recent work has focused on the history, politics and ethics of the representation of the prison and prisoners in the prison tourism industry in England and Wales.


  • Barton, A. and Brown, A. (2011), ‘Dartmoor: Penal and cultural icon’, Howard Journal of Criminal Justice, 50(5) 478-491.
  • Barton, A. and Brown, A. (2012) ‘Dark Tourism and the Prison’, Prison Service Journal, No 199, 44-49.
  • Barton, A. and Brown, A. (2013) Special Edition: Prison and the Public, Prison Service Journal, No. 210.
  • Barton, A. and Brown, A. (2014) Special Edition: Prison and the Public II, Prison Service Journal, No. 214.
  • Barton, A. and Brown, A. (2015) ‘Show me the prison: The development of prison tourism in Britain’, Crime, Media, Culture, 11(3) 237-258.