On November 10th, 2012, there was (yet another) prison riot in the news. 27 inmates were killed in Sri Lanka during a clash between inmates, security, military, and police ‘commandos’.
It is absolutely fascinating when Western media discusses events like this, violent events that take place in another country, because, without fail, they do not give any sort of cultural context. This is not in the United States. Or Canada. Or even Britain, France, or Australia. This is Sri Lanka, a country that I – and, I would argue, most of the Globe and Mail audience – know next to nothing about.
Why does it matter? Because most Canadians assume that there is an obvious dichotomy where prisons are concerned (…citation needed?). The inmates are bad, the police/military/security/corrections officers are good, and therefore any clash between the two is a simple, objective story of good vs. evil with a variety of results.
Reading about this event (http://www.theglobeandmail.com/news/world/27-inmates-killed-after-sri-lankan-prison-riot/article5181194/) just made me wish I knew more about Sri Lanka. What kind of laws put these people in this prison? What is corruption like in this country? What is the gang situation like here? And how long have these people been incarcerated?
This reminded me of a really intriguing assignment my classmates and I were given last year, which asked us to ‘(Un)Make the News’. As I’m interested in prisons, I chose to unmake a recent prison riot I’d seen on the news – and what I found about the framing of news pieces themselves really opened my eyes.
And this is after six years of criminology – will I ever stop being surprised to find to what extent our ‘reality’ is constructed by the media?
The Story as Western Media Tells It
In the early hours of Sunday, February 19, 2012, members of a Mexican drug cartel known as the Zetas instigated a riot in Apodaca correctional state facility in Apodaca, Mexico. According to various news sources at the time, at least nine guards working in Apodaca prison aided the Zetas in escaping their prison cells, and confessed to doing so during the investigation of the riot. This investigation found that the Zetas staged the prison riot as a distraction in order to facilitate an escape attempt. The Zetas were released from their cells and “slaughtered 44 rival inmates”, who were members of the Gulf cartel. Thirty Zetas managed to escape the prison compound and “are still at large” at the time of reporting.
From this point, the story as it is related by news media began to focus on the weaknesses of the Mexican criminal justice system, overcrowding as a fatal issue in Mexican and/or Latin American prisons, corruption in this system, and the failing drug war in Mexico spearheaded by President Felipe Calderon.
While the story described above may be the ‘facts’ of the prison riot as they can be understood from a variety of news sources, the actual generation of the meanings of these representations mean much more for the cultures they are generated within than the cold facts of a news story.
I won’t get into the nuances that my 14 page paper gets into – although I would love to talk about it with anyone who has an interest. In short, the language of Western media repeatedly refers to overcrowding as an issue in these ‘violent’ and practically lawless countries, while drawing comparisons and parallels that make no sense – for example, one newspaper cites 350 killed soon before in a prison fire in Honduras as proof that violence in these countries is essentially rampant.
This prison fire, like most of the riots discussed, was linked to “harsh overcrowding”. This harsh overcrowding is talked about like a distant thing, a problem of these far away, ‘uncivilized’ countries – never mind that Canada has a painfully high rate of overcrowding, and some states in the U.S.A. may be comparable to Mexican prisons in this effect. No, it has to be a foreign issue of these less developed countries.
Of course, the articles focus on the dirty details of the Apodaca prison riot: how many people were killed. How many days were spent in lockdown. The gangs responsible. The corruption. The overcrowding. The problems Latin America is facing that are so unique to prisons in these specific countries (but not really).
This photograph was displayed prominently on one such article, written by Archibold and posted to the New York Times in February of 2012:
This photo shows prison guards attempting to hold off family members which, I would argue, appear to be violent themselves in this photo (although the guards don’t look like sweethearts either).
Interestingly, the related Canadian article published on CBC.ca is written and published by a Canadian company and has a distinctly different approach than that taken by Archibold of the New York Times.
This article refrains from blaming the entire country, or Latin America as a whole, for the violence and death as the New York Times article seemed to do. Again, there is a great deal of really fun – from a media analysis perspective – things going on in these articles. One of the greatest differences between the CBC article (actually from the Associated Press) and the New York Times article is that, while the American article chose to picture angry, frightening-looking family members fighting for entrance into the prison, this is what the CBC headlined their story with:
These photos were taken by the same photographer, and are used by different newspapers – in different countries – to discuss the same event.
Sadly, you can’t believe everything you read in the news – not if you want to know the truth. While the notion of ‘truth’ is intangible and abstract for some, I personally prefer not to have that nebulous concept filtered through a newspaper that carefully chooses its photographs to achieve a certain effect.
After scouring the internet for translated Mexican news of some sort that covered this riot, I eventually found the story as it was described by local media: a story of uncertainty, of potential tragedy, as families waited outside of the gates for days on end waiting to hear who had died, who had lived. Was their father, son, brother, lover, cousin one of the dead? This slice of humanity – completely ignored by American media and touched on with one photo and a paragraph in Canadian media – captured the local people until this crisis ended.
So what really happened in Apodaca? What really happened in Sri Lanka?
It depends on who you ask.