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Frostburg Professor’s “Prison Movies” Textbook Finds Interest From Prison Reformists

Frostburg Professor’s “Prison Movies” Textbook Finds Interest From Prison Reformists

Movies about prisons and prisoners have captivated American audiences for most of a century, having first appeared during the Great Depression. For many law-abiding viewers, such movies offer a unique view of a frightening unknown place. Prison films also create useful microcosms to examine vexing social issues.

These ideas are explored in “Prison Movies: Cinema Behind Bars,” a new textbook by Dr. Kevin Kehrwald, professor of English and coordinator of the Film Studies program at Frostburg State University.

“The prison movie is such an isolated space because you are in an enclosure, so you have characters of different backgrounds, origins and classes who have to struggle together to find a way not always to get along but to survive. To me that seems like a very American kind of attitude,” Kehrwald said. 

Kehrwald’s personal fascination with prison movies began in childhood.

“I saw ‘Escape from Alcatraz,’ and I saw it way too young,” he said. “But it always stuck in my head.”

Other textbooks explored prison movies or included them with other genres, but Kehrwald found none that dealt directly with them or adequately defined the genre. In “Prison Movies,” Kehrwald deliberately defines the genre and offers a historical cultural analysis of prison movies from the Depression to the present.

Previous works have called the prison movie an offshoot of gangster movies. Kehrwald argues that the prison genre arrived first and that the gangster movie is actually its mirror image.

“That gangster movie impulse – that society is the place where you can’t win unless you break the rules – goes hand-in-hand with the prison film, where you are shown not to have any power or agency. (During the Great Depression), with the unemployment rate and not having opportunities, it’s no wonder prison became such a place of identification for the audiences.”

Kehrwald traces changing themes and patterns within the genre alongside changing societal attitudes and major historical events. As tough-on-crime politicians and prison-reform movements have ebbed and flowed, Hollywood’s depictions of prisons and prisoners have changed alongside them.

“A lot of prison movies have a reformist message in the background. They may tell about the lack of opportunity for inmates to work, overcrowding, poor conditions, but those themes tend to be lip service by the time the films are over,” Kehrwald said. “A lot of times, these films tend to center around personal behavior and responsibility, but I think they kind of eschew those larger issues and place it on the individual to solve their own problems, which is so American.”

With the recent political changes, Kehrwald expects to see another shift in the genre.

“You can’t keep making the same movie over and over. It has to adapt to its time period. ... It’ll be curious to see what direction the genre takes,” said Kehrwald. “When the issue of mass incarceration really started coming into play in the 1990s, under the Clinton administration, those issues were ignored (by prison movies).”

Given the nature of the genre and its insight into the isolated world of correctional facilities, Kehrwald’s book has also caught the attention of some prison-reform advocates. In the weeks since its release, two universities have already invited Kehrwald to discuss criminology and prison reform issues based on the treatment of those issues in popular prison movies.

“Prison Movies: Cinema Behind Bars,” is available now as part of the Short Cuts series published by Wallflower Press, an imprint of Columbia University Press. To reach Kehrwald, email or call 301-687-4367.

Situated in the mountains of Allegany County, Frostburg State University is one of the 12 institutions of the University System of Maryland. FSU is a comprehensive, residential regional university and serves as an educational and cultural center for Western Maryland. For more information, visit or Follow FSU on Twitter @frostburgstate.


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