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Inmate Identity: Dangerous Criminal

The Lone Star museums and tourist sites offer their audiences many stories about the inmates, characterising them often as dangerous, predatory, animalistic criminals, capable of heinous acts and showing little remorse. For example, within the Texas Prison Museum one of the first cabinets tourists see is filled with contraband items. These include a variety of home-made weapons such as a blade hidden in a flip-flop and a five-sided throwing star. We are told that all of the weapons were seized during cell searches, and that some were used in attacks against staff and other inmates. In addition, the early cabinets also tell stories about escape attempts. While they were unsuccessful (all of the escapees were either killed during the escape, or re-imprisoned, or later executed) they still represent violent exchanges between prison staff and inmates. One display case houses a metal mask made by an inmate, along with weapons and handcuffs, all of which were used in an escape attempt. Next to another cabinet a noticeboard of text explains that during the escape attempt, prison officers lost their lives.

Moreover, the portrayal of the inmate as a dangerous criminal is also identified within the jail tours. Being inside the jails themselves provides arguably the most vivid (re)construction of this dangerous identity. Indeed, all of the cells tell the story of a caged body, but the padded cell (in Eastland) establishes in particular the inmate identity within a threat narrative. The cell is complete with original padding; the fabric is heavily stained and ripped, and there is a faint musty smell. The experience of being inside the dirty, confined space is somewhat unnerving by itself, but is animated further by the stories the tour guides tell:

They’d thrash around in here, the crazy ones; clawing and stuff. They’re the most dangerous in my opinion, because they were just so unpredictable you know? [Eastland guide]

While there was no padded cell in Beaumont, the tour guide still managed to evoke the image of the dangerous criminal identity:

Some of them would get crazy, like animals, so none of them could have proper plates or knives; nothing like that. Some days they’d be fine, but other days they’d be fixing to use them as weapons. You’d be amazed at what can be made into a weapon, ingenious really. [Beaumont guide]

This storied construction (re)presenting the dangerous criminal identity as not only volatile, but cunning, ruthless and remorseless is also reflected in the variety of displays already discussed about deaths in the line of duty. Telling these types of stories—about contraband weapons, violent escape attempts, crazy animals and murdered prison or police officers—reminds the audience that inmates (past and present) pose a very real threat.

The dangerous criminal identity is regularly the fodder of other cultural stories told about crime and punishment (Altheide 2006; Dorfman et al. 1997; Ericson et al. 1991; Greer and Jewkes 2005). Take, for example, TV crime dramas (see Surette 2011), action movies (see Rafter 2006) or comic books and graphic novels and their adaptations (see Kort-Butler 2012). However, all of these are representations of a fictional criminal threat, and most make no claim to be based on a true story. Unlike the museums and tours, they do not declare representational authenticity or legitimacy.

More applicable might be those cultural stories that seek to represent reality such as news reporting where, according to Kaminer (1995) the image of a ‘dangerous criminal’ is often at its most extreme. Like these Texan punishment sites, the news reporting media is known to (at times) represent criminals as cunning, ruthless and remorseless (Chermak 1995). Yet there are other similarities too. As Jewkes (2015, pp. 41-56), suggests, values such as ‘simplicity’, ‘violence’ and ‘risk’ shape crime news, and the museum stories analysed so far adopt similar values. However, while the identity of the criminal offered in news media is similar to that in the sites studied, there are two significant differences between them.

Firstly, crime stories in the news media tend to focus on individual offenders (Dowler et al. 2006; Greer and Reiner 2012 ; Jewkes 2015) but in fiction on both the offender and the working of law enforcement more broadly (Boda and Szabo 2011; Grodal 2011). Within the Prison Museum, the spaces dedicated to the dangerous inmate identity rarely make mention of individual prisoners or allude to the story of their apprehension. The constructed identity is based on collective behaviour(s) rather than that of any one individual. Similarly, when walking around the cell spaces the tour guides employ plural pronouns such as ‘they’ and ‘them’ rather than specific names of previous felons.

Secondly, media reports of crime are usually set in public spaces, such as housing estates, playgrounds, poorly-lit footpaths or abandoned warehouses. By contrast, the museums’ stories are primarily set inside a prison or jail; a closed, some say secretive, institution (Roth 2006). The popularity of prison-related tourism, Wilson (2008) contends, is because the sites are telling private stories (about prison life) on a public stage (the museum or tour). In many ways the museums actually pick up the crime story where other cultural products often leave it. Usual narrative trajectories—for example, the race against time to subjugate danger—do not feature. Within the museum and tour stories, the criminal is no longer a threat to the public.

The depiction of the dangerous criminal identity (as offered by museums and tours) is thus closest to the portrayal of prisoners in prison documentaries. According to Cecil and Leitner’s (2009) analysis of the documentary Lock Up, the episodes tended to focus on the ‘worst of the worst’ offenders, specifically those who had committed violent crimes, were in prison gangs and were heavily tattooed. Indeed, the Texas Prison Museum does include one poster dedicated to prison gangs and their associated tattoos. Within the punishment sites’ stories then, the prison is (re)presented to the tourist as a place which should be feared due to the people it contains. However, that is not to suggest that the Texan museum stories employ an explicit narrative of fear. Within these punishment stories (and one might say prison documentaries also), the dangerous inmate—rather than simply a symbol of fear—also represents a victory of sorts; they are characters in a story about a successful prison system which is containing threat and protecting the public. This too is a type of prison promotionalism.

Much the same can be said about the items in the contraband cabinets. Each of the museums has displays dedicated to weapons seized by police and prison officers. Once integral to a private story of violence, brutality and victimisation, they are now displayed within a public narrative about successful cell raids and criminal apprehension. Both the setting of the stories (non-public) and the objects used to tell them (confiscated contraband and weapons) construct a narrative which is not exclusively centred on—or designed to provoke—a fear of crime within the audience. These are more accurately stories about a threat that is being successfully contained, approached with braveness and boldness by both Texas and Texans.

In short, while these ‘dangerous criminal’ stories could be interpreted as employing a narrative of fear, they might just as easily be seen as stories about the criminals we need not fear. Convicts are depicted as a threat, but it is a threat that Texas has under control. Moreover, the aggressive approaches that Texas takes to crime within these stories and the masculine scripts of boldness and bravery, characteristic of the toughness narrative, are at odds with any notion that the state is fearful of crime and criminals. The Texan commitment to harsh punishment is an expression of toughness not terror, of defiance not dread. While prison is portrayed as a place which should be feared and prison officers are depicted as at war with the criminal threat, there is no suggestion that fear of crime underpins the Texan commitment to its penal system. Moreover, alongside these stories of a successfully contained threat—within the Texas Prison Museum especially—are a number of displays that tell stories about a very different kind of inmate; one we need not fear at all.

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