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Imprisonment on Screen: Prison Documentary

   School of Arts and Creative Industries

This project is no longer listed on and may not be available.

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  Prof A Schwan, Dr A Scott  No more applications being accepted  Self-Funded PhD Students Only

About the Project

Crime and punishment have attracted the interest of social commentators and creative practitioners for a long time; imprisonment as the now dominant form of punishment has featured in literature, media and culture, often to provoke reflection and debate on the purpose and effectiveness of incarceration as a tool for rehabilitation. Since the rise of cinematic and televisual technology, imprisonment has also had a strong presence on the screen. In cinema, such engagement has ranged from the women-in-prison genre – in itself a rich, heterogeneous form encompassing early social problem films like Caged (1950) as well as sexploitation movies proliferating in the 1960s and 70s – to movies about death row in the USA, such as Dead Man Walking (1995), The Green Mile (1999) and Monster’s Ball (2002). More recently, US television shows such as Orange is the New Black (2013-9) have stimulated public conversation about women’s imprisonment and mass incarceration.

Prison documentaries, too, continue to proliferate: throughout his long career acclaimed documentary director Nick Broomfield has produced film portraits of people behind bars from Tattooed Tears (1979), to Aileen Wuornos: The Selling of a Serial Killer (1992) and Aileen: Life and Death of a Serial Killer (2003). Producer Roger Graef presented a very different documentary portrait of life in confinement with the musical documentary Feltham Sings (2002). Other examples in Britain include the BBC’s Girls Behind Bars (aired 2011) and ITV’s recent four-part series Inside Prison: Britain Behind Bars (2019). Streaming platform Netflix, quick to capitalise on popular trends, offers a plethora of choices in the genre, including National Geographic’s Lockdown (2007), Irish investigative journalist Paul Connolly’s global journey Inside the World’s Toughest Prisons (2016), Louis Theroux’s Miami Mega Jail (2011), the ‘how-to’ Survivors Guide to Prison (2018) narrated by Susan Sarandon, a documentary about pregnant women and new mothers (Babies Behind Bars, 2011), and a series of documentaries about juvenile prisoners in the US (Lost for Life, 2013; Girls Incarcerated, 2018-9, They Call Us Monsters, 2016). Ava DuVernay’s acclaimed documentary for Netflix, 13th (2016), tackles US mass incarceration by linking it to the country’s history of slavery and racial inequality rather than focussing on life behind bars itself.

This project invites you to critically assess the proliferation of prison documentaries and the representation of imprisonment in some of these films. There is scope to focus on specific groups of incarcerated people (e.g. women or young people), or for a comparative analysis between different national prison systems and how those feature on the screen. Similarly, if you are a creative practitioner, there is potential to incorporate practice-based research on documentary film-making in relation to prison settings.

The successful applicant will benefit from expertise in the School of Arts and Creative Industries and work with the two supervisors linked to this project who both have research interests and expertise in related areas: Professor Anne Schwan has published on representations of crime and imprisonment in literature and popular culture, in both historical and contemporary settings. Dr Alistair Scott has worked as a documentary film-maker and written about film-making and representations of specific communities on screen.

Applications from students wishing to study part-time are welcomed.

Academic qualifications
A first degree (at least a 2.1) ideally in a relevant arts and humanities subject such as Cultural, Media, Film or English Studies with a good fundamental knowledge of film/televisual analysis.

English language requirement
IELTS score must be at least 6.5 (with not less than 6.0 in each of the four components). Other, equivalent qualifications will be accepted. Full details of the University’s policy are available online.

Essential attributes:
• Experience of fundamental studies in cultural and media representations
• Competent in film/televisual analysis
• Knowledge of some examples of imprisonment on screen and related socio-historical contexts
• Good written and oral communication skills
• Strong motivation, with evidence of independent research skills relevant to the project
• Good time management

Desirable attributes:
Applicants with practical film-making experience are welcome to apply, but this is not a requirement.


Indicative Bibliography Cecil, Dawn K., ‘Prisons in Popular Culture’, in Oxford Research Encyclopedia: Criminology and Criminal Justice (2017). DOI: 10.1093/acrefore/9780190264079.013.194.
Harmes, Marcus, Meredith Harmes and Barbara Harmes (eds.), The Palgrave Handbook of Incarceration in Popular Culture (Palgrave Macmillan, 2020).
Jewkes, Yvonne, Media & Crime, 2nd edn. (Sage, 2011).
Rafter, Nicole, Shots in the Mirror: Crime Films and Society (Oxford University Press, 2006).
Wilson, David and Sean O’Sullivan, Images of Incarceration in Film and Television Drama (Waterside Press, 2004).

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