Punishment in Popular Culture

9781479861958: Hardback
Release Date: 5th June 2015

9781479833528: Paperback
Release Date: 5th June 2015

Dimensions: 152 x 229

Number of Pages: 320

Series The Charles Hamilton Houston Institute Series on Race and Justice

NYU Press

Punishment in Popular Culture

Hardback / £77.00
Paperback / £23.99

The way a society punishes demonstrates its commitment to standards of judgment and justice, its distinctive views of blame and responsibility, and its particular way of responding to evil. Punishment in Popular Culture examines the cultural presuppositions that undergird America’s distinctive approach to punishment and analyzes punishment as a set of images, a spectacle of condemnation. It recognizes that the semiotics of punishment is all around us, not just in the architecture of the prison, or the speech made by a judge as she sends someone to the penal colony, but in both “high” and “popular” culture iconography, in novels, television, and film. This book brings together distinguished scholars of punishment and experts in media studies in an unusual juxtaposition of disciplines and perspectives.

Americans continue to lock up more people for longer periods of time than most other nations, to use the death penalty, and to racialize punishment in remarkable ways. How are these facts of American penal life reflected in the portraits of punishment that Americans regularly encounter on television and in film? What are the conventions of genre which help to familiarize those portraits and connect them to broader political and cultural themes? Do television and film help to undermine punishment's moral claims? And how are developments in the boarder political economy reflected in the ways punishment appears in mass culture? Finally, how are images of punishment received by their audiences? It is to these questions that Punishment in Popular Culture is addressed.

Charles J. Ogletree, Jr. is the Jesse Climenko Professor of Law and Executive Director of the Charles Hamilton Houston Institute for Race and Justice at Harvard Law School. He is the author of All Deliberate Speed: Reflections on the First Half-Century of Brown v. Board of Education (WW Norton and Company, 2004) and Co-Author of From Lynch Mobs to the Killing State: Race and the Death Penalty in America.

Austin Sarat is Associate Dean of the Faculty and William Nelson Cromwell Professor of Jurisprudence and political Science at Amherst College. He is author or editor of more than 80 books, including When the State Kills: Capital Punishment and the American Condition; Mercy on Trial: What It Means to Stop an Execution; and Gruesome Spectacles: Botched Executions and America’s Death Penalty.

A fluid merging of cultural theory, media studies, and the social facts of mass incarceration, Punishment in Popular Culture is an unprecedented assembly of exceptional and emergent interdisciplinary scholars who take on the cultural life of punishment against the backdrop of the U.S. carceral regime. Disturbing, original, and provocative, this volume reveals how deeply and broadly punishment is enmeshed in the imaginary of everyday life in American society. From the contemporary perspective and across time, we see how punitive images, often overlooked, carry profound cultural force in our socio-political landscape.

Michelle Brown,University of Tennessee

[] [T]his collection will reward students who seek insight into the conceptions of justice that animate the ghost in the popular culture machine.


The essays in this VERY creative and thought-provoking book force us to think about what movie depictions of punishment represent, how we receive them, and how our consciousness is shaped by them. Highly recommended!

James B. Jacobs,Warren E. Burger Professor of Law, New York University

This is a necessary and important addition to the literature of legal studies. Tackling one of the most salient issues of our day, the authors use the most sophisticated interdisciplinary methodologies to tease out the many subtle strands underlying the debates around capital punishment.

Elayne Rapping,University at Buffalo, The State University of New York

Eloquently portray[s] the ways in which popular culture and the criminal justice system influence and feed off each other in a way that both impacts and shapes popular opinion but also various laws.


[T]here is much to appreciate in this work.Punishment in Popular Cultureis the most recent of the five books Ogletree and Sarat have edited in their series on race and justice. That subject remains possibly the most important area of inquiry in the fields of criminal justice and legal studies. One hopes they will continue toencourage the scholarship that contributes to our understanding of race and justice.

Criminal Law and Criminal Justice Books