The Face That Fits

Posted: 15 April 2012 in Prisons
Tags: ,

Caricature Cartoon by Charles Bronson

When I’ve been in prison, so many of the guys look like something out of central casting. Either big beefy guys with shaven heads. Or thin skinny geezers, who look as if they are recovering from substance abuse. Or perhaps just deep in it. But does the face fit? Do criminals look like us? Silly question really. But a campaign was launched last week against casting on TV and film that selects people for criminal roles that look ugly or threatening. This panders to the stereotype that if your face fits, you are most likely to have been the criminal. Interestingly, research by Leicester University shows that members of selection panels were much more likely to pick someone as the offender if they looked like a criminal stereotype. For instance: “Looks like the hicks from my hometown that always got away with beating their wives”; “His eyes give me the heebee-jeebees”.

Lead researcher Heather Flowe explained: “Criminal stereotypes can affect decisions made by actual witnesses, in particular, weak witnesses who do not have strong memories for the perpetrator. In this experiment the participants who didn’t have a description fell on stereotyped conceptions of what a perpetrator ought to look like”.

This is frighteningly dangerous. Innocent individuals can get ID’d on identity parades when they were innocent, or were not the principle parties in a gang offence. Furthermore, this tendency panders to an ethical or even spiritual blind spot in our own behaviour. F Scott Fitzgerald said in The Great Gatsby that “the rich are different”, not like us. Our temptation is to similarly say that “the criminals are different”, not like us. Less than us. Morally inferior? When we know that legislation is in part, socially conditioned by the mores of the time, we’d be foolish to far along that route. And morally cheap.

So – what about the guys I saw “out of central casting”? I asked some ex-offenders about this. They made a number of interesting comments. Firstly, I as an outsider, I too am conditioned, and to an extent I see what I expect to see. Secondly, a lot of guys will slot into a small number of appearances, simply to fit in, to keep a low profile. Thirdly, unless getting ready for release, offenders in many prisons wear prison issue clothing. Often grey jumpsuits, usually ill fitting. When washed they shrink, so the wearer can appear hunchbacked or bow-backed, until they stretch back again. Prison uniform therefore homogenises appearance.

It is all part of the loss of freedom.

  1. Nick says:

    Interesting and helpful post, Bill. I think to a certain degree we choose some aspects of our appearance, at least outside prison (hair length, clothing, etc) but we can’t choose, say, the eyes we were born with! And if a man’s shaved his head for different reasons (eg because he’s got hair loss) it is alarming if that makes him more liable to be labelled as a criminal type.

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