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Inmate Identity: Reformed Prisoner

Within the Texas Prison Museum—toward the latter half of the tour experience—we see a number of display cases filled with inmate arts and crafts; one cabinet about female death row inmates and their doll-making; a large display of inmate carpentry; and an exhibit detailing the role inmates play in training guide dogs for returning service men and women who have been injured in military conflicts. The audience are led to assume that these inmates no longer pose any immediate threat or danger—after all, they have been given access to scissors, saws, needles and guide dogs.

It could be proposed that placing the dangerous criminal stories at the beginning of the museum experience and the reformed inmate stories at the end, suggests to the audience that prison is an institution capable of transforming once dangerous criminals into reformed and responsible inmates. Moreover, the museum sells smaller items of prisoner-made arts and crafts in the gift shop, so the tourist is invited to take the narrative of the reformed prisoner home when they leave. Showing the souvenir to their friends and family, or giving it as a gift, means the reformed inmate story will likely loop and spiral far beyond the Texas Prison Museum.

The dual nature of inmate identity (dangerous criminal vs. reformed prisoner) means the fictional prison movie narrative is arguably the closest match to the experience offered in the museums. As Valverde (2006) suggests, the majority of prison movies do attempt to humanise at least some of the offenders within the narrative, while simultaneously portraying other prisoners as dangerous criminals. However, according to Bennett (2006), in prison movies the lead character is often innocent and at times is even awarded a hero status. This is not the case in the museum. Humanising politics work to make the reformed inmate appear civilised and the prison as civilising, but that is not to say inmates are portrayed as innocent or heroic. Moreover, in those prison films where the reformed character is guilty as opposed to innocent, the crime tends to be minor, non-violent or perpetrated many years ago (Mason 2006a, b). What are less common are cultural stories that work to humanise real-life offenders who have committed recent, heinous crimes. In short, what we rarely see are humanising politics at work in cultural stories told about death row inmates and executions.

However, while uncommon, one significant attempt has been made to represent guilty death row inmates as reformed characters, thus sharing similarities with the museum story. The Benetton advertising campaign, ‘We on Death Row’, used images of—and statements from—convicted killers awaiting execution on death rows across America (see Girling 2004). The campaign received an onslaught of negative press and according to Kraidy and Goeddertz (2003) the controversy stemmed from the partiality in the narrative; there was no victim voice. While a previous Benetton campaign featuring an image of the electric chair had received little attention on the national stage, the ‘We on Death Row’ billboards were deemed unacceptable by a number of victim advocacy groups. Benetton was accused of ‘sympathising with murderers’ (Kraidy and Goeddertz 2003).

While the museum stories do attempt to humanise death row inmates, the narrative is different to that of the Benetton campaign. Firstly, the museum story is not partial in the same way. Victims’ voices are represented elsewhere in the museum (the photographic exhibit discussed in Chap. 9) as is the dangerous criminal identity (in the form of the contraband cabinets, escape attempt descriptions and memorials). Secondly, ‘We on Death Row’ used direct quotations to humanise the death row inmates. The audience is encouraged to hear the offender’s story through their own words, and by extension to judge the offender’s claims of reform. Our museum story replaces those words with objects. Displaying inmate artwork, leatherwork, carpentry and tapestry does represent an attempt to humanise the inmates, to make them appear civilised, but they also serve to silence the inmate voice. Rather than a declaration of reform from the prisoner’s mouth (as in the Benetton campaign), these are implicit assertions made by the museum. By implying the ‘reform narrative’ through non-verbal communicative gestures, the museum will likely sidestep much of the contestation and controversy associated with Benetton. There is no ‘face’ staring back at the audience asking for forgiveness and the tourist does not ‘see’ the condemned and in turn are not ‘seen by’ the condemned. The dynamics of spectatorship are entirely different.

The third difference is arguably the most significant, in that it allows the reform narrative to comfortably co-exist with that of the victims’ rights campaigners. Whereas Benetton was seen as humanising inmates in an attempt to generate support for abolition, the museum humanises but offers no such suggestion. For example, dolls made by the ‘women of death row’ are exhibited in the museum. We are told they were made

‘twenty years ago’, but that is all. These women (we presume) have either been executed, or are still awaiting execution. The museum humanises the inmates but unlike the Benetton campaign it does so without turning the condemned into characters in an abolitionist story.

In short, there is no suggestion anywhere in the museum narrative that the reformed inmate should not be executed, or that any inmate, however dependable or responsible, should receive a reduction in sentence. The museum removes its reformed inmate story from wider debates about the appropriateness of execution by avoiding them entirely, and ultimately allows the audience to see the inmates as reformed, whilst still retaining support for their execution or other harsh punishment. The stories told about reformed inmates are thus not in competition with any critical narrative about how good behaviour might signal a reduction in punishment. The reformed inmates are awarded privileges (such as access to carpentry tools) but the audience can view this reform as a personal journey. Within these stories good behaviour will have no impact on an inmate’s death sentence or the length of time they will be in prison.

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