Most of the general public’s understanding about the criminal justice system doesn’t come from reading bills like the First Step Act, which calls for steps toward creating reform programs that will reduce the likelihood of prisoners recidivating after release. It also doesn’t come from Chairman of the House Judiciary Committee Bob Goodlatte’s bipartisan initiatives related to the justice system and its desperate need for restructuring.
Instead, the average person has learned about the criminal justice system from reality shows and films. Those that do not have personal experience with the legal system, carceral institutions and criminal investigations build their conceptions of this world off of its media representations. And as a result, it is imperative that those networks and filmmakers in charge of narratives of criminal justice and prison, both real and fictional, are handling them responsibly and accurately. But there is one television network, in particular, that is specializing in the production of these stories — and it is proving problematic.
A&E stands at the forefront of documentary and reality series about topics related to criminal justice. And while, at first glance, it may seem admirable that the network is raising awareness for the unseen and unheard narratives of incarcerated communities, these shows often result in generalized and misguided tales of life behind bars, as well as the people who experience the justice system first-hand.
The network has either previously aired or is currently airing 27 different series related to the criminal justice system, about individuals both inside and connected to the system — one of the most popular is the series “Beyond Scared Straight.”
In this show, teens struggling with issues such as drug use, alcoholism and a variety of criminal activities spend a day inside a prison, forced to confront the difficulties and horrors of incarcerated life. The show is structured as an intervention, showing what these teens are like before entering the prison, their experiences being “scared straight” within these institutions and their paths to rehabilitation after the show. The problem with this is that the program is not voluntary and does not guarantee that the participants will lead a better life once they are released. While the show’s programmers do check in with the participants a month later, they take no action to help those youths or their families if the program itself was insufficient in reforming behavior. Additionally, the show makes the assumption that one experience in the system is enough to stop all problematic behavior when in reality, relapse is a frequent and difficult part of the recovery process from drug use, alcohol use and criminal behavior.
Although the show, which creator and executive producer Arnold Shapiro lauded as a “successful series,” came to an end in 2015, A&E is still churning out equally exploitative series and documentaries sensationalizing the legitimate complexities of the criminal justice system.
For example, one of the documentaries featured on A&E titled “Women Who Kill” profiles a selection of murders committed by women. According to the A&E website, “The special features interviews from a variety of cases including a woman who stabbed her boyfriend with a stiletto-heeled shoe and a husband who was pushed out of a high-rise apartment.”
Though there isn’t an overt problem with producing a documentary that highlights the homicides committed by women, there is a fundamental issue with the way A&E has chosen to present these stories. By choosing very specific, very pointed details about the homicides featured within the documentary — details that are permeated with misogynistic rhetoric — A&E paints these women as vengeful, exaggerated figures filled with rage.
In an article for Huffington Post, Judge Donna Leone Hamm writes, “Presently, there are 210,000 women in prison in the U.S. … The female prison population consists of women who’ve been sexually, physically and emotionally abused since childhood, as well as those who are drug-dependent, those who have moderate-to-severe mental health issues, and some fewer who are criminally-inclined.” This reality is one that is absent from “Women Who Kill” and one that shows female criminals are not always just acting in the heat of the moment, but can be responding to triggers of internalized trauma.
It is worth noting that while there is a “Kids Who Kill” documentary of a similar structure, A&E has yet to produce a documentary called “Men Who Kill.” These shows, alongside ones such as “Behind Bars: Women Unchained,” emphasize the network’s zeroing in on dramatized depictions of criminals that can represent them as untamed and inhuman, reducing their humanity to their time in the criminal justice system.
With a majority of its content, A&E is rarely praised as a quality television channel. Series and documentaries such as “Storage Wars,” “Storage Wars: Texas,” “Storage Wars: Miami” and “Storage Wars: Northern Treasures” often promote the network as frivolous to the public. This is not to say that A&E should avoid politically and socially relevant content. But the content must be less sensationalized, more well-rounded and more diverse. It is not sufficient to advocate for reform in the justice system itself — we must also ask more from the media’s representation of it.
Maisy Menzies is the assistant arts & entertainment editor. Contact her at [email protected].