BA Film Studies and Arabic / Course details

Year of entry: 2024

Course unit details:
Discipline and Punish: The Modern Prison on Stage and Screen

Course unit fact file
Unit code DRAM21902
Credit rating 20
Unit level Level 2
Teaching period(s) Semester 2
Available as a free choice unit? No


“Prisons communicate meaning not just about crime and punishment,” writes criminologist Alison Liebling, “but also about power, authority, legitimacy, normalcy, morality, personhood and social relations.” These concerns are also explored in fictional dramatisations of prison life, which focus on interpersonal crises and conflicts of status and authority. This module examines a variety of dramas, for both stage and screen, set in men’s or women’s prisons. It asks what these representations of incarceration have to tell us about wider social attitudes towards both convicted criminals and the systems that imprison them. The course also stresses the extent to which popular understandings of prison life are shaped by such dramatizations. Since most people will never see the inside of a prison, our ideas about this hidden world are formed in large part by the making visible that is achieved by film. The prison movie has been a popular film ever since the advent of Hollywood “talkies”, in the 1930s, and has developed its own set of stock visual tropes and character types. The changing shape of the prison film over a period of decades tells us a great deal about perceptions of the prison itself, and also of the class, race and gender “norms” that frame our ideas about criminality. Stage plays about incarceration are less commonplace, and cannot conjure the same visual realism as film, in depicting the world of the prison. But theatre can put us “in the room” with prisoners and guards, emphasising different kinds of dramatic intensity through dialogue,

physicality, and even direct, spectatorial participation. These dramas can sometimes serve to subvert the normative views shaped by mainstream film. This course will also consider ways in which the prison itself can also be seen as a kind of performance space. As Michel Foucault’s famous analysis of Bentham’s “Panopticon” demonstrates, prison life involves the near-constant observation of prisoners’ behaviour. Prisoners learn to perform in certain ways under this disciplinary scrutiny, just as guard staff perform for the eyes of management. In this context, certain role-types are routinely acted out, but nothing is necessarily as it appears. Discussions of the films, plays, and performances will be informed throughout the course by selected theoretical and criminological literature, exploring issues around punishment and rehabilitation, surveillance and control.


Pre-requisites:  Any L1 Drama or Film study unit

Co-requisites:  Any L2 core unit in Drama or Film:  Theatres of Modernity or Screen, Culture and Society


  • To explore a range of dramatisations of prison life, for both stage and screen, within their aesthetic, social and historical contexts.
  • To consider the relationships between imprisonment and performance, and the ways in which issues such as rehabilitation, punishment, discipline and gender are presented and dramatised in plays and films.
  • To develop students’ understanding of shifting social attitudes towards imprisonment, over the course of the last century, and the extent to which these have been shaped or informed by dramatic fictions.
  • To develop students’ abilities to work independently and as groups, both creatively and critically, and to facilitate the development of skills in research and presentation.

Learning outcomes


Teaching and learning methods

11x3 hour lecture/seminar session per week (occasionally incorporating practical theatre workshop elements)
Occasional screenings where appropriate

Knowledge and understanding

  • Demonstrate a critical understanding of the various ways in which incarceration has been depicted dramatically, on both stage and screen, since the 1930s.
  • Demonstrate an awareness of the changing social and cultural contexts, in both the UK and US, that have informed these dramatisations.
  • Analyse dramaturgical strategies and generic conventions associated with the depiction of prisons and prisoners.
  • Demonstrate an understanding of how prisons themselves stage dramatic relationship between spectators and performers; observers and observed.
  • Demonstrate an ability to interrogate the relationships between primary texts and secondary sources (including contextual and theoretical material).

Intellectual skills

  • Develop coherent arguments and analyses, and articulate these in both written work and creative presentations.
  • Reflect critically on and evaluate a range of films, plays and performances.
  • Express themselves effectively and use creative methods to explore critical ideas 
  • Synthesise and analyse a range of critical texts.

Practical skills

  • Work efficiently as a key member of a small group engaged in research, practical work, and presentation.
  • Communicate research material both verbally and in writing.
  • Use creative work and techniques to explore and convey critical ideas.

Transferable skills and personal qualities

  • Demonstrate an ability to communicate effectively with others about intellectually demanding concepts, topics, materials
  • Demonstrate an ability to draw with accuracy, focus, detail and precision on complex materials in independent and group work
  • Demonstrate an ability to effectively present – through discussion and in writing – complex topics, drawing convincingly on oral, written and visual media as appropriate to the topic.

Employability skills

Group/team working
an ability to work productively as part of a group and independently in learning environments that present complex challenges.
Oral communication
an enhanced ability to effectively adapt self-presentation to different audiences/contexts, especially when communicating complex topics.
Problem solving
a good level of critical thinking and problem-solving skills.
an ability to develop detailed, planned and multi-layered approaches to tasks.

Assessment methods

Method Weight
Written assignment (inc essay) 60%
Oral assessment/presentation 40%

Feedback methods

Feedback method

Formative or Summative

Collaborative creative response – oral and written feedback


Reflective essay – written feedback


Ongoing feedback on plans for the assessed outcomes – peer to peer and tutor to student - oral


Recommended reading


Brown, Kenneth H., The Brig (Hill and Wang, 1965) [film document by Jonas Mekas]

Churchill, Caryl, Softcops and Fen (Methuen, 1986)

Clean Break, Charged: Six Plays about women, crime & justice (Nick Hern, 2010)

Guirgis, Stephen Adly, Jesus Hopped the A Train (Methuen, 2002)

Munro, Rona, Iron (Nick Hern, 2002)

Stephens, Simon, Country Music (Methuen, 2004)

Wertenbaker, Timberlake, Our Country’s Good (Methuen, 1991)

Williams, Tennessee, Not About Nightingales (Methuen, 1998)



Birdman of Alcatraz (dir. John Frankenheimer, US 1962)

The Big House (dir. George Hill, US 1930)

Caged  (dir. John Cromwell, US 1950)

Con Air  (dir. Simon West, US 1997)

Hunger (dir. Steve McQueen, UK 2008)


Study hours

Scheduled activity hours
Lectures 33
Independent study hours
Independent study 167

Teaching staff

Staff member Role
Stephen Scott-Bottoms Unit coordinator

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