How Media Constructs Our Reality – Apodaca Prison Riot and Beyond

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.

Meaning?

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:

Image

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:

ImageSource: http://www.cbc.ca/news/world/story/2012/02/19/mexico-prison-riot.html

These photos were taken by the same photographer, and are used by different newspapers – in different countries – to discuss the same event.

Fascinating.

My point?

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.

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Punishment.

Should the purpose of the criminal justice system really be punishment?

Is it not?

What is the PURPOSE of punishment?

How does punishment differ from retribution? And is retribution any different than vengeance? Is it appropriate for a government to take vengeance upon the lawbreakers of society? All of them? Some of them? None?

I think that the Canadian (and American) criminal justice system(s) are heavily reliant on punitive and retributive ideology that does not stand up to scrutiny. However, I have only been looking at this since I have been involved in criminology, and that makes me fairly biased, as my field considers crime and justice essentially the most important societal focus. I wish I could understand how the general public thinks. When you don’t think about crime, justice, punishment, and prisons every day, how does that make punishment more logical? What is going on in my country that we allow – ENCOURAGE – this type of ideology?

Is punishment harmful? Can vengeance hurt?

Can either be useful? Do they serve a practical purpose?

What do you think?

Our Schizophrenic Country

Oh, Canada.

I need to utilized you today, WordPress. I need to brainstorm.

For all of you Readers out there, present and future, I’m heading to Ottawa in a few days to present at the Critical Perspectives conference at Carleton University. Graduate students, professors, scholars, and working people all involved in criminal justice will be presenting over the weekend, and by some insane stroke of luck I managed to get myself put on the agenda.

Now, what am I going to talk about?!

I’m presenting a version of a paper I wrote for my penology class. That paper asked ‘What is the purpose of prison in Canada?’ and used a portion of Bill C-10 to try to answer that question. Problem is, 2/3 of that paper establishes the classical approaches to prison, what the various purposes of prison are, what the evidences of each of those positions are, etc. etc.

I cannot go to this conference and explain to these experts why long prison sentences reflect retributive approaches to prison, because in our world that’s obvious and elementary, my dear. I cannot spend time describing what rehabilitation looks like, because most of these people probably have a great deal more experience – both academic and first-hand – with rehabilitation than I do.

So, the bulk of my paper is out the window.

I want to use this blog to brainstorm. If you’ve come across this blog, even long after I present this, please let me know what you think of this issue, my ramblings, punishment and prison in general, or anything of the sort! Even if the literal need for this blog is over, this is still one of my main interests and fascinating to discuss.

So! Here is what we have to work with.

Canada and the criminal justice system in Canada appear to be in a state of flux. Our criminal justice system does not seem to have a universal approach to prison, punishment, or the breaking of the law. Considering this, establishing as a whole the purpose of prison in Canada is extremely difficult, and likely can change dramatically depending on which laws you use as evidence. Considering this, I do not aim to establish the general purpose of prison in Canada; rather, I aim to expose… what?

To begin this discussion, we must consider what is officially recognized as the purpose of prison in Canada for, of course, there are official missions and mandates. To get this information, I considered the website of the CSC.

There is an official 8-page document written and published by the CSC that establishes the official core values, approaches to ethics, responsibilities of employees, and other such mission statements. The four core values show that the CSC is committed to respecting the dignity of individuals, the rights of people in society, and the potential for human growth and development. They recognized that an offender has the potential to live as a law-abiding citizen.

These core values contain within them the seeds of rehabilitation. By establishing that the CSC respects the rights of people in society, the first core value protects against rehabilitative practices that could, in theory, harm the general community; however, overall this approach fits with a notion of prison that allows for growth and development, that exists to help inmates become law-abiding citizens.

This document was published in 2003. It is still in effect, and still available on the CSC website, although it is not easy to find. In fact, navigating to the section titled ‘Mission Statement’ does not provide a link to this information, or a summary of this information.

The ‘Mission Statement’, the one paragraph mission statement on the CSC website, seems to provide an alternate interpretation of these key goals. Or are they new goals? If anyone here knows how these two conflicting mission statements can exist, please talk to me.

This is the Mission Statement on the CSC website.

“The Correctional Service of Canada (CSC), as part of the criminal justice system and respecting the rule of law, contributes to public safety by actively encouraging and assisting offenders to become law-abiding citizens, while exercising reasonable, safe, secure and humane control.”

I think it is crucial to note that the word ‘control’ is not in the 2003 Mission. This portion of the website was last updated in 2010 and, while it still contains the seeds of rehabilitation with the mention of encouraging offenders to become law-abiding citizens, places much more emphasis on the control and security of these offenders in addition to public safety.

Okay, that’s enough for now. I’m pretty sure I’m rambling. Need to back it up, read this over, and condense! Thanks for bearing with me.

 

Edit a few hours later:
Holy crap, that was boring. Good to know!! Wow.

New approach. Focus on the BILL, not the CSC. It’s hard to make it sound interesting, because it gets into word-by-word analysis which seems smart on paper but brutally dry when I’m speaking out loud.

Not sure how to make this memorable. Ugh. Lots of work to do tonight.

Will blog about it tomorrow! 🙂

GEMS and Exclusive Responses to Commercial Sexual Exploitation

I am going to share with you, Reader (or Constant Reader, a la Stephen King) one of my weaknesses.

Advertising works on me, and so does the marketing of… my words are failing me. Virtue. Charity. Selflessness.

And so, sometimes, when I get offered ‘a $22 t-shirt!’ where ‘$7 goes to charity!’, and the t-shirt is cool, and the cause is just, I fall for it.

This type of behaviour is ridiculous, but rampant in our society. Why do we feel good about donating money when we are receiving something concrete in return, in addition to the good feelings that come from giving? Why are we so charitable and generous when we consume goods that donate an infintesimally small fraction of the cost to a good cause?

Sevenly.org is the home of the t-shirt I mentioned above. Each week they host a different cause and design a series of t-shirts and sweaters for that cause. Most shirts are $22 (some fancy ones are $27) and all donate $7 to the cause. I have caved once so far – I bought a shirt to support a shelter for battered women and their children – and received a neat, stylish looking shirt with ‘Enough Is Enough’ scrawled trendily (apparently that’s a real word) across the front. (I’ll post evidence soon!) Go me, I am so selfless and awesome. The package even included a note that said ‘Good for you, changing the world and stuff!’

The sale of that feeling, that charitable, generous, virtuous feeling, is often worth the money that it garners. And some would argue – and have, when I shared this with my Facebook crowd – that this is better than buying a shirt at the mall. At least the charity is getting something, when usually they wouldn’t. But did I refrain from shopping because I had this single shirt? Surely not. I feel that this type of logic works on the charity’s side, but on the individual side it is a fairly weak argument.

Oh, and I am so weak.

Now we get to the point of this post.

My anger.

My frustration.

Am I crazy?

This week, Sevenly.org is promoting a charity called GEMS, also known as Girls Educational and Mentoring Service. Based out of New York City, this grassroots organization is “designed to serve girls and young women who have experienced commercial sexual exploitation and domestic trafficking.” Okay, so far so good, although I was already curious as to what ‘commercial sexual exploitation’ is. I am not sure if they mean prostitution in general, or specifically exploitive prostitution. Well, maybe they don’t separate the two.

“Girls Educational and Mentoring Services’ (GEMS) mission is to empower girls and young women, ages 12–24, who have experienced commercial sexual exploitation and domestic trafficking to exit the commercial sex industry and develop to their full potential.”

Sad face.

I have a pet peeve. For those of you who know me (and there shouldn’t be any yet, since this blog is 100% covert thus far), you may know that I am interested in the sex trade. I am also a cautious advocate of the sex trade, where those involved in it choose to be in it. According to some sources, that’s the majority of the sex trade in Canada. According to other sources it is not. Each type of organization can support themselves on data like this.

You may see the problem. I am not going to advocate for a place like GEMS to close. I am sure they do wonderful work, and do not begrudge them money that they may gain from Sevenly’s campaign. But what about women who do not want to exit the sex trade? I have read fairly extensively on the sex trade in Canada and the U.S. This is a problem that many sex trade workers face. A great deal of available services include the caveat “if you are exiting the trade”. If you want to deal with previous trauma, but think you have a good thing going on now, that doesn’t cut it. If you want outside help making your life better, through education, employment, etc. while staying in the sex trade, that is equally unacceptable.

There is a fairly strong argument in the world of criminology that social services are agents of social control. GEMS is not officially a ‘social service’, as it is not a branch of government or connected to social workers in an official capacity. And yet, it perpetuates this notion that sex for money is wrong. Selling your body is bad. You cannot possibly continue to do it if you have seen the light and are asking for help. If you refuse to leave the trade, we cannot help you, we cannot save you; you are in denial, you are the drug addict that cannot yet admit she has a problem.

This is wrong.

Absolutely wrong.